Part four of a five-part series.

Smiling like a proud parent, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis enthusiastically presided over the October graduation ceremony of 23 people who just might personify her biggest professional achievement to date.

Dumanis’ office is leading California with the creation of a groundbreaking prisoner reform program to reduce recidivism. The recent graduates, who received certificates and warm handshakes from Dumanis, were the first to successfully complete it. Hundreds more are likely to follow.

“I’m really proud of this,” Dumanis said days before the graduation. “We are a model for the state and we have gotten great results.”

The program, created in 2007, is particularly significant as the state contends with about a 70 percent recidivism rate — the highest in the nation — plus a severe budget crisis and a court-ordered mandate to reduce the overcrowded prison population by 40,000 over the next two years.

Dumanis said the recidivism rate among the first participants in the program is just 14 percent, though she acknowledges it’s too soon to gauge long-term success.

State and county leaders have lauded Dumanis as an innovator with the statewide political clout to turn her ideas into reality. With no challenger in her 2010 reelection bid, she apparently will coast into a third term with the momentum of a savvy incumbent who has parlayed legislative success and key liaisons into power and influence. She has even opened her door to defense lawyers and law students from the California Innocence Project, a testament to the breadth of her relationships.

“She’s known for being a real straight shooter, an honest broker in state government, and she garners a lot of respect around the capital,” said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “I know the governor has a great deal of respect for her as do a lot of legislators.”

Her efforts to keep people out of jail — rather than just put them in — has won her many fans.

“She is the most vigorous advocate for reform of the prisoner re-entry process among all the district attorneys in California,” said Bob Nelson, chairman of the advertising and public affairs firm BNA Communications, who serves on Dumanis’ community advisory board and helped develop her citizens academy.

The legislation that created the prisoner reform program, known as SB 618, provides non-violent offenders with a personalized life plan created by specialists who incorporate education, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health services and more. The program is unique because it starts before San Diego offenders are sentenced, continues while they serve their time and then goes on for up to 18 months after they are released from prison.

Dumanis and her lawyers brought the idea to the state, and Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, authored the bill, which provided state funding. San Diego is the first county to implement the program, which teams law enforcement, faith-based and community-based organizations, governmental agencies and universities to work with prisoners at the California Institute for Women in Corona and the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa.

Another legislative success earlier in her tenure was Proposition 83, known as Jessica’s Law, which her office helped write. It tightened restrictions on child molesters and sexually violent predators.

Cate and others said Dumanis’ political power lies in her ability to create relationships.

“There is a warmth to her personality,” Cate said. “She is winsome, the kind of person you like to be around. But the fact that she’s honest and trustworthy really makes her effective. Personality gets you in the door but character makes you a formidable and influential person in the capital.”

Dumanis puts relationships high on her list of accomplishments — with her employees, minority groups, the defense bar, the Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, and the larger San Diego community through committees such as the Women’s Advisory, Citizens Advisory, Youth Advisory and Inter-Faith Advisory groups.

And, she said, she has established “unprecedented transparency and media/public access” and instituted quarterly lunches to educate and build relationships with journalists.

For this series, Dumanis spent three hours with a reporter and answered numerous public records requests.

Also on her list of accomplishments is her system for deciding whether to seek the death penalty. Even adversaries admire her for her openness.

“She has instituted a process that is pretty responsive to everybody’s interests,” said veteran Deputy Public Defender Gary Gibson. “She meets with defense lawyers and families of victims, and her own office. I’ve met with her six times, certainly a more open door than has existed before.”

It isn’t just about an open door, but also about an open mind, Gibson said.

“One of her greatest strengths is she’s willing to listen to everybody in the process,” he added. “She is not fixed in her decision making process. It is possible she could change her mind even after she’s made her decision.”

In fact, she did just that in 2007 with one of Gibson’s clients, disabled ex-Marine Bryan Smith. Smith was eligible for the death penalty because of a special circumstance allegation of murder during the commission of a robbery. Dumanis at first decided to seek the death penalty and later reversed herself.

“She is open to compelling new information,” Gibson said. “We put together a package with regard to his injury in the Marine Corps, who he was before the injury and after. He was a hugely successful high school quarterback, homecoming king, had a successful military career, and with a brain injury became a different person.”

Dumanis said she once met with a victim’s family while on vacation back East to discuss the possibility of the death penalty.

“It’s a somber decision and one that I have to make. I want to feel like it’s the right decision,” she said. “Even when I announce death, if things change, if there’s more information that comes up, I’m willing to look at that. Because sometimes families also change in the process, when it starts taking its toll on them. It’s very hard.”

She has even opened communication with the Innocence Project.

“They’ve been willing to talk about our cases that we’ve brought forward,” said Jeff Chinn, the project’s associate director. “They may not always agree with our stance or our arguments, but at least they are open to our dialogue. In fact, she’s the only office in California that’s made herself available.”

Coming Thursday | DA’s Budgets Goes Up While Others Goes Down: The boost comes as crime hits a 25-year low and the District Attorney’s Office settles more cases than ever.

Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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