By Sam Stanton
Published: Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013 – 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013 – 12:05 am

In the first glimmer of hope for Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to delay further reductions in California’s prison population, a panel of three federal judges agreed to a brief postponement Tuesday and ordered California officials and inmate attorneys to begin talking about solving the issue.

The judges, who had ordered California to reduce its inmate population by roughly 8,000 prisoners by Dec. 31, granted a postponement to Jan. 27.

The order falls short of the three-year postponement the Brown administration asked for in a Sept. 16 filing with the judges, but it may signal a willingness by the panel to consider the possibility of a compromise. The judges ordered both sides to “meet and confer, beginning immediately,” to discuss Brown’s request for more time.

The two sides are to meet confidentially and informally under the oversight of Justice Peter J. Siggins of the 1st District Court of Appeal. The judges indicated that Siggins should report back by Oct. 21 with recommendations on how to proceed. The judges also ordered the state not to “enter into any contracts or other arrangement to lease additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or otherwise increase the number of inmates who are housed in out-of-state facilities.”

Sending inmates to private prisons in California and out-of-state is part of Brown’s last-ditch effort to avoid releasing inmates to meet the court-ordered deadline, and officials with one private company, the Geo Group Inc., announced Monday it had signed contracts to provide 1,400 prison beds at its facilities in McFarland and Adelanto.

The three-judge panel has ruled – and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2011 – that California prisons are so overcrowded that the inmates’ physical and mental health needs are compromised. The state contends it has spent more than $1 billion correcting problems in the prisons and has done enough.

Both sides were cautious Tuesday about the larger meaning of the order, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issuing a statement that simply said, “The state is reviewing the order.”

The state already has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and on Tuesday filed documents asking the high court to deny a request by inmate attorneys that the state’s appeal be dismissed.

“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,” department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an emailed statement.

Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, said he did not believe Tuesday’s order reflects any sign that the three-judge panel may be inclined to further postponements.

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