Critics of California's controversial prison "realignment" program are now looking to repeal it -- at the ballot box.
Leading the charge for an initiative campaign is former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, who's raising money to run for governor.
Since October 2011, under Assembly Bill 109, newly sentenced, non-violent, "low-level" felons have been serving time in county jails.
Meantime, with crime rates having increased in all major categories in San Diego County in 2012, calls have been mounting to unwind the system.
Maldonado prominently added his voice during a sidewalk news conference Monday outside the county’s central jail downtown.
"This was not designed to hold four, five and six-year sentences!" he exclaimed, waving an arm at the jail entrance as journalists and news photographers recorded the event.
Maldonado said he’s concerned that ex-convicts locked up for misdemeanors since late 2011 can be released early to make room for newly sentenced felons -- and then go on to commit serious crimes all the way up to murder.
"In the olden days, pre-early release, the District Attorney could say, 'This is a threat,' and send them back to prison," Maldonado said.
But with federal courts ruling California's prisons overcrowded to the point of "cruel and unusual punishment", there's no room in the penitentiaries.
Maldonado said that means new prisons should be built, current ones expanded, and old ones re-opened.
"We have to look at increasing capacity in California,” he said, explaining that providing funding ought to be a top priority in Sacramento. “And it should be the responsibility of the governor and the Legislature -- but mostly the governor. Governors get what they want. But since they're not doing anything, we're going to take it to the people of California."
But rehabilitation experts argue that prison construction and in-custody programs need to be augmented with post-release transitional assistance that can be provided by community-based organizations.
"Brick and mortar doesn't work -- I mean, there is no such thing as rehab in prison,” says Scott Silverman, founder of With Tough Love and Second Chance, community-based programs for returning troubled individuals to society. "Putting more people on the inside, in institutions with no tools to prepare them to come outside -- all we're doing is building a bigger, better recidivism machine.”
To that perspective, the Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation's press secretary, Jeffrey Callison, offered this rebuttal: "Scott Silverman is entitled to his opinion, of course ... although his opinion is incorrect. California has reinvigorated its commitment to rehabilitation, in part thanks to the steep decline in the prison population."
Callison said that under realignment, the state has reduced crowding by some 25,000 nmates in response to judicial mandates.
"However, the federal courts say that is not enough and require further reduction of some 9,500 inmates by the end of this year," Callison noted. "Under threat of contempt of court, the state produced a plan for continuing population reduction.
"But Governor Brown says such reduction is not needed, is potentially dangerous, and will be expensive, and the state has started the process of appealing the most recent order to the Supreme Court."
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore is looking forward to opening a 400-bed "re-entry" facility at the county’s Otay Mesa jail complex, to better prepare inmates for release and reduce a men's jail capacity factor of 99 percent.
“We're looking at alternatives to incarceration, to make beds so we don't have to do early releases for the more serious felons,” Gore said in an interview Monday. "We're doing in-custody ankle bracelets. We're putting people into work-furlough programs. Those types of programs make room for the people who need to stay in jail."
Gore said he sees no simple, affordable solution close at hand to a problem that’s been developing for two decades: “As the prison population grew, the recidivism rate climbed, and the state did not build more capacity in the system … the state looked at realignment and felt that's the better way to approach this than releasing people early from the state prisons."
Maldonado's initiative -- aimed at the November ballot next year -- would require the valid petition signatures of more than half a million registered voters.
It's shaping up as the key platform plank of a gubernatorial bid, for which he's established an official.