By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California won an extra four weeks to reduce prison overcrowding on Tuesday as a panel of judges called a brief time out in an escalating crisis over inmate populations that Governor Jerry Brown and legislative leaders say they are close to solving.
The special three-member panel of federal appellate judges rejected a request by Brown for an extension of the deadline to 2016, but said they were willing to give the state until January 27 to discuss those solutions with attorneys for inmates.
California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past year, as officials wrestle with overcrowding and concerns about the state's use of long-term solitary confinement for some prisoners.
In July, some 30,000 inmates began refusing meals as part of a hunger strike over prisoner isolation that at least some 100 inmates carried on into early September.
The panel of judges ruled in 2009 that California's prisons can be permitted to exceed their design capacity, but set a cap on inmate numbers.
The resulting court order requires Brown, a Democrat, to reduce the population in the state's prisons by the end of this year by about 8,000 inmates to be in compliance - even if it means releasing some convicts before they finish serving their sentences.
Brown has criticized that order, which stems from years of lawsuits over prison conditions, as expensive and dangerous. But the judges have refused to budge, threatening to hold Brown personally in contempt if he does not comply.
Tuesday's order amounted to at least a short-term victory for the governor, who reached a deal with legislative leaders earlier this month to address the overcrowding problems in part by spending up to $400 million on rehabilitation efforts, including mental health services for inmates.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment on the ruling, referring calls seeking comment California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A spokeswoman for the corrections department would say only that the state was "reviewing the order."
The three-member panel appointed a California appeals court judge to oversee talks between the state and inmate lawyers and report back on their progress by October 21.
"He shall immediately report to the court if, at any time, he determines that further discussions between the parties would be unproductive," the panel wrote in its three-page order.
Also Tuesday, the state filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to reject a request by inmate lawyers to dismiss an appeal of the case.
"In our briefs, we have made a strong case for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the state's appeal because the three-judge Court rejected our showing that the population cap is no longer needed without ever examining the tremendous improvements to the prison health care system," corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a written statement.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)