By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers
Joyce Dudley will never forget the final words her late husband spoke to her three years ago.
“Unfortunately, with the very untimely death of my husband, I got to see firsthand that it ends, life ends,” she said. “And I wanted to use his last two words to me as an inspiration.
And they were: ‘Have fun.'”
In an exclusive Newsmakers TV interview, the three-term District Attorney of Santa Barbara County, cited those words of her beloved husband, John, as the simplest explanation of her surprise decision not to run for re-election this year.
“I’m very proud to endorse John Savrnoch,” she told us.
In our wide-ranging interview, Dudley discussed both the personal and professional reasons for not seeking a fourth term — speaking candidly about some of the politics, policies and personalities in county government that underpin it. First elected in 2010 to lead the DA’s office, which she joined in 1990, she ever since has displayed seemingly boundless energy, enterprise, intelligence and passion for the job.
“It hurts my heart, for a lot of reasons,” she said about giving up the post. “I had to ask myself, after 32 years, if doing this job – in this environment – is still fun. And the answer to that was no.”
Public safety and social justice
. Dudley traced her unexpected move in part to frustration and vexation arising from last year’s county budget hearings,
when she clashed sharply, both with the Public Defender and with liberal members of the Board of Supervisors, over funding and critical issues of public safety and social justice.
Santa Barbara’s conflicts over law enforcement policies reflect a broader, decade-long nationwide debate over criminal justice reform, which exploded with the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In the wake of widespread protests that followed, as Black Lives Matter leaders and some left-liberal allies called for “defunding the police,” progressive prosecutors were elected in cities across the country, promising policies to address the “root causes” of crime rather than focusing on punishment and incarceration.
Now, however, spikes in murder rates and viral videos of brazen retail robberies have sent concerns about crime soaring to the top of public opinion polls — reflected in a Los Angeles Times piece this week
headlined, “Why crime is at the center of California elections this year” — and a number of the progressive prosecutors — including L.A. County District Attorney George Gascon and San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin — face recall campaigns.
Strikingly, Dudley told us that the politics of this debate have shifted the priorities of some local government leaders and unbalanced the complex criminal justice system to the detriment of crime victims – a change she said influenced her decision to forego another term:
“When you ask the big question, ‘is there justice in Santa Barbara,” you have to say, ‘do people feel safe,” too. That is part of social justice…It’s always been my goal to do that — and suddenly it got murky.
“And when I tried to figure out how that shift happened, it occurred to me that some people in the Democratic Party are pandering to the outspoken minority of people who, I think, just haven’t experienced the criminal justice system the way that I have.
“I understand the concept of ‘unjustly accused,’ I’ve experienced it, But I also understand all too well, the powerlessness that a crime victim feels, a crime victim who’s done absolutely nothing, suddenly is subject to a criminal act.
“And suddenly our community has stopped saying, ‘what about the present victim, what about future victims, and it’s all about the suspect and the defendant. I’m looking for balance. And I think Santa Barbara did a really good job with that balance…until recently.”
Evolution of a decision. Dudley repeatedly pointed to the Board of Supervisors’ 2021 budget hearings as triggering her belief that it was time to leave the DA’s office.
“I think the seed was planted about a year ago during the budget hearings. And some things happened there that made me think that when you put things in balance, if this were the last year of my life, is this how I’d want to spend my life?
“And I had to ask myself, after 32 years of doing this job, is doing this job in this environment still fun? And the answer to that was no,..So I think that was the first time that my husband’s words came back to me. Are you having fun? Is this the goal?…Honestly, that was the first moment I considered not running.”
Among other incidents during the hearings, she cited an effort by several liberal supervisors to make her commit to alternative “diversion” programs for a fixed percentage of cases brought to the DA’s office – a proposal she termed “outrageous.”
“When we talk about things like diversion, make sure that the diversion is going to make a difference, is going to have a positive effect on the public safety of the community and of justice,” she said. “Don’t just divert because that’s the latest woke term. Carefully make that decision.”
On her preferred successor. (Just two weeks before the close of registration to qualify for the June 7 primary ballot, Dudley’s endorsement of the 58-year old Savrnoch gives him a huge boost, and makes him a prohibitive front-runner — with no challenger yet on the horizon).
“I’m very proud to endorse John Savrnoch. He’s the assistant district attorney. He was the assistant district attorney in Fresno. He came to Santa Barbara as a deputy district attorney who worked in Lompoc. He proved himself as a trial lawyer. He proved himself as a leader. I made him a chief in Santa Barbara and then made him the assistant district attorney. I think he’s the best person for the job.”
On progressive prosecutors. “Why would a law enforcement officer arrest somebody if he knows his district attorney’s office, isn’t going to file charges. Why? You have to send a message from the top.
“The district attorney’s office is the chief law enforcement official for any county, for Santa Barbara, I am. So from the top, I have to send a very clear message. These are the crimes that we’re going to prosecute, not ‘gee, you do your thing to arrest and we won’t prosecute.’ That’s not the way the system works. I think it’s a cowardly response to say, ‘it’s not the district attorney’s responsibility.’ I think it absolutely is.”
On root causes. “I’ve often said when I was the director of Head Start, I did more to prevent crimes than I did as a district attorney. And I believe that. I believe some very basic things: We need good prenatal care for at-risk families. We need home visits for families that are at-risk. We need preschool programs for all. We need Head Start programs, where they get medical and dental. We need mental health and physical health screening.
“If we can…really focus on babies to five year olds, what a difference we could make. Because I’ll tell you if a five year old walks into school and they don’t have the same kind of educational background as others have had because they went to preschool, hat child walks into a foreign country. And that child feels alienated and that child feels hopeless. And that child starts to space out. And that child doesn’t feel that they have a place in school.
“So what happens? That child is eventually is unsuccessful. That child eventually can become a truant. And 70% of the people in the state prison are people that didn’t finish high school. So really, you really want to make a difference. Let’s spend that money…let’s fight crime and invest in kids.”
On defunding the police. “When the suggestion is that we should defund the police, well, that’s ridiculous. We want to give more funding for social service agencies. But when you defund the police, you make the communities less safe….
“…(W)e don’t need to defund the police. We need to give resources for prevention, intervention, and prosecution. I think that (members of the Board of Supervisors) have another opportunity in the next budget hearing to show what their position is on that. In the past, I have felt let down, I’m hoping to not be let down this year.”
On criticism of cops. “One of the things that’s been heartbreaking for me, in addition to all the information we’ve gotten on critical race theory and everything else that’s happening…to people of color, there is also what’s happening to law enforcement. I’m not saying they’re analogous. I understand the struggle of both.
“But…let’s talk about law enforcement. Right now, law enforcement is being portrayed as the bad guys, they’re being portrayed as racist. They’re being portrayed as self-serving, as lying, as contemptuous. And as a result of that, the trust between law enforcement and our communities is going downhill.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to hire high quality law enforcement officers, for them to want to stay in the business, for them to feel proud of the work, for the community to feel proud of them. We have to invest in law enforcement, in their education, in their mental health.”
On co-response teams. “Love them, love co-response teams…That’s a great place to put funding. Every law enforcement agency in Santa Barbara county should have multiple co-response teams…
“It makes so much sense. When a dispatch call comes in, you understand the person’s had a history of mental illness and you understand how they have responded in the past. And you bring social workers and people who understand. If a law enforcement officer arrives, through no fault of their own, and somebody is in a chaotic mental state, they are going to be fearful, defensive and act aggressive.
“Sadly, those kinds of people often got arrested in the past when what they really needed was a safe place….they needed a hospital, they needed a safe place to go. But now with the co-response team, there are very few arrests in the situations like that. And people are getting the help they need, I love the co-response programs.”
On her career path. “I began working at… the Children’s Home Society Head Start programs… and I had always intended to stay as an advocate for children. That was my plan. My first volunteer job, I was 17 and I worked in the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So I learned first-hand what happens to abused, neglected kids. The pilot light got lit and it’s never gone out.
“As the director of Head Start..I watched a case of what I viewed as child abuse. I reported it and nothing happened. And the same person brought that child back to the next day. I was shocked and I was given a snotty response along the lines of “You don’t like it, you become a lawyer…”
“I had no intention of being a lawyer. But I thought if I really want to make a difference in child abuse, apparently that’s the way to do it…And it was always, always my passion to be a voice for the voiceless. It started with child abuse. Then it went to sexual assault, hate crimes, animal abuse. That was just, I feel, for lack of a better term, my calling.”
On keeping the community safe. “Certainly I want to focus on those prevention programs. The next thing is I want us to look critically at intervention. When we talk about things like diversion, make sure that the diversion is going to make a difference, is going to have a positive effect on the public safety of the community and of justice. Don’t just divert because that’s the latest woke term. Carefully make that decision.
“Then when it comes to punishment, what’s the best form of punishment? Some combination of treatment, incarceration, perhaps. Again, look at each individual case. And then focus on reentry. Most people don’t spend the rest of their life in prison.
“What are we doing so when people who serve their time in prison are released in order to make sure that they get incorporated in the community and they don’t commit more crimes? They’re going to need jobs. They’re going to need housing. They’re going to need that kind of education support in order to be productive human beings in our communities.
“So if you don’t look at criminal justice from prevention to reentry and you focus on any one area you’re blind because we need it all.”