Three federal judges on Wednesday forcefully rejected a Schwarzenegger administration proposal to ease prison overcrowding, threatening to impose their own plan for reducing the inmate population if the state does not submit an acceptable one within three weeks.

The panel said California officials had failed to comply with their order to produce a plan to pare the number of state prisoners by 40,000 within two years. The judges agreed to postpone a decision on a request by inmates' lawyers to hold Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in contempt of court for defying the earlier order, issued Aug. 4.

The state's plan, submitted Sept. 18, also failed to specify how much lower the number of inmates would be after six, 12, 18 and 24 months, as the judges had demanded.

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