Joyce Dudley: The Deadly Unintended Consequences of Murder Laws for Juveniles | Opinions

On March 4, Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton reported on the sentencing of a defendant convicted in a double murder that occurred in Goleta on Jan. 7, 2021. Tom’s article began with this statement:

“A 16-year-old boy has pleaded guilty to murder and other charges for two killings in Goleta last year.”

These murders were committed when the teenager was 15 years old.

On Feb. 29, the teenager was sentenced to the maximum sentence under the law — seven years of confinement in a secure treatment facility.

(Seven years is the baseline term of confinement with jurisdiction of the juvenile court ending at age 25.)

If convicted as an adult, age 18 or older, this teenager would have faced a potential maximum sentence of 100 years to life without the possibility of parole.

Since Tom’s article, many of you have asked me: “What? Wait. When did this become the law?” Below is my answer.

Before the passage of Proposition 57, on Nov. 8, 2016, prosecutors were required to charge a juvenile aged 14 or over as an adult if that minor personally committed a murder with a special circumstance, such as murder committed during the commission of a robbery, or, if that minor committed one or more specific serious and violent sex offenses.

Prosecutors also had the discretion to file cases directly into adult court for minors aged 16 or over who were alleged to have committed certain serious or violent offenses, or minors 14 and over who were alleged to have committed one of those offenses while using a firearm or if the offense was committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.

When California voters passed Prop. 57 — The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 — juvenile court judges, rather than prosecutors, were now placed in the position to decide whether a minor charged with certain serious or violent offenses should be prosecuted as an adult.

This process was called a “transfer hearing.”

While Prop. 57 removed the discretion of prosecutors to charge any minor directly into adult court, for any offense, prosecutors were still allowed to request a transfer to adult court of minors 16 or older, or 14 and older if they committed a specific serious or violent offense.

However, in 2018 the Legislature passed state Senate Bill 1391, which removed the authority of the prosecutor to request, or a judge to authorize, transfer to adult court of any minor under the age of 16 for any offense — regardless of the severity.

Currently in California, there is no recourse outside of the limited juvenile court jurisdiction, which ends at age 25, for juveniles who commit serious, heinous crimes if they are under the age of 16.

To be blunt, if someone 15 years and 11 months old murders multiple victims, his or her maximum confinement is from the time they are sentenced until they are 25 years old (in most cases seven years) in a treatment facility.

This is why Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen, in his March 11 column, sarcastically commented about the local double-murder case, “Thank you, Sacramento. If you think that’s supposed to make me feel safer … you’re wrong. Dead wrong.”

Bill’s sarcasm is correct, because of the likelihood that this extreme drop in penalties will increase the number of gang murders.

As a result of the law, gangs will be encouraged to put the deadly weapon in the hands of their 15-year-old members because that juvenile will only have to spend seven years in a treatment facility, as compared to a more senior member (18 years old or older) of that same gang, who would be sentenced to life in prison, and therefore would no longer be useful to that gang.

And as horrible as that sounds, the typical 15-year-old gang member wants to be the shooter because that increases his or her standing (“reputation”) in the gang — which in gang life is everything.

I know this to be true because that is what juveniles have been telling us for decades, and because since this law has changed we now, for the first time, have multiple gang murder cases pending in Santa Barbara County where a 15-year-old is the alleged murderer.

Tragically, I don’t feel justice can be served in any of these cases, nor, in my opinion, is it likely to be served in future cases, anywhere in California, where the law essentially allows — or perhaps even encourages — a 15-year-old to “get away with murder.”

Having said that, I also absolutely believe there are situations when seven years in a treatment facility would be the appropriate sentence for a 15-year-old murderer. But I believe it is a deadly mistake to make that the only sentence available under the law.

So what changes am I suggesting to improve our juvenile criminal justice system? My recommendations below reflect my education and life experiences.

Specifically, my nearly 32 years as a prosecutor, with a B.A. in psychology, two master’s degrees in education, several years of experience as a juvenile law professor, and perhaps most important being an adoring mother to my four sons and now four grandchildren.

My recommendations include prevention, intervention, incarceration and re-entry.

I also believe SB 1391 should be repealed.


We should invest in our very young — from pre-natal care through home visits to “high-risk” families, to universal pre-school, which includes mental and psychological pre-school screening with appropriate follow-up care.

Further, this focus on our youth should continue to high-quality and universally affordable after-school programs through junior high school, and finally to trade classes being offered in both high school and community colleges.


As soon as we see that a child is struggling, we should intervene — not stick our heads in the sand. We should hold them accountable and get them the proper treatment, counseling, programs (i.e., restorative justice) and, if necessary, punishment.

This is a good place to stop to answer your question, where will the funding for these programs come from?

The answer to that is … savings. Presently it costs us $106,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate in a state prison, and that is just the direct cost. The costs to our society are immeasurable.

I believe by spending this state money on prevention and intervention and by only incarcerating those who won’t or can’t be helped, we will actually save our state money, and that is money well saved.


I believe at times incarceration is necessary, but I feel our county jails and state prisons need to be more rehabilitative in nature, with appropriate treatment and educational opportunities, if that is embraced by the inmate.


Very few sentenced inmates are sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Therefore, we must establish effective/personalized re-entry programs that help them become contributing members of our communities.

Legislative Changes

The sentencing aspect of SB 1391 should be repealed and replaced by Prop. 57 so prosecutors can once again, under the proper circumstances, request a juvenile case be transferred to adult court, and judges can once again have the capacity and opportunity to make that ruling.

Murder victims’ families don’t care how old the teenager is who killed their loved one. They also know no justice system can bring their loved one back.

Murder victims’ families only want one thing from our justice system, and that’s justice, something that no one in our state can get in a system that uses only a teenager’s age to determine a just sentence.

Joyce Dudley is Santa Barbara County’s district attorney. The opinions expressed are her own.

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