A federal judge on Monday gave California officials six months to ease crowding in the nation's largest prison system, warning that court-ordered remedies could include limiting the inmate population and releasing some prisoners early.

The state is scrambling to ease crowding in a prison system that houses 173,000 inmates, 70 percent more than its capacity. State officials and inmate attorneys agree the crowding causes problems including inmate deaths and dangerous conditions for guards.

"Common sense suggests the state is being overwhelmed by the numbers," U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said.

In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency after failing to persuade state lawmakers to spend billions on a prison building program, and state corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said the governor plans to introduce a similar plan in January.

As a partial solution, Schwarzenegger is seeking to transfer 2,260 inmates to other states. The state sent 80 to a private Tennessee prison in early November and plans more transfers this month to facilities in Arizona, Indiana, and Oklahoma.

Karlton can order the creation of a three-judge panel that would recommend options, but he delayed that decision Monday until June 4, saying he has seen progress during Schwarzenegger's tenure.

"The plaintiffs want the court to run the prison system, and that is too serious a step to be taken lightly," Karlton said.

Federal law permits early release of inmates only if a three-judge panel determines that all other options have been exhausted. That hasn't happened in any state since the law took effect 10 years ago, said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

Inmates' attorneys say the state won't be able to ease crowding by June, no matter how hard it tries.

"Waiting six months is just postponing the inevitable and causing more injury and death," said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit San Francisco-based Prison Law Office, which wants Karlton to create the panel.

The nonprofit group and a private law firm filed identical requests with two other federal judges in ongoing cases in which they represent inmates' interests. They argue that crowding is affecting inmates' well-being.