Counties Claim State Owes Money By Overcharging For Juvenile Detention Costs

Apr 16, 2014

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters
Credit Department of Juvenile Justice

Florida’s counties say the state owes them money. They claim they’ve been overcharged for helping pay the cost of juveniles in detention centers. The two sides appear close to reaching a deal on how to split the costs going forward—but a conflict is brewing over whether the state should have to reimburse the counties for past expenses.

When minors go to jail, or detention centers , their local counties are required to foot part of the bill. The counties pay pre-sentencing costs, while the state picks up the rest, according to a formula put in place by the Florida legislature a decade ago. But counties claim the process used by the Department of Juvenile Justice to calculate their share of detention costs is unfair and say the state keeps changing the rules. Last year, two different courts agreed with the counties.

“So that was a big part of the litigation, and the judge ruled DJJ’s rules were internally inconsistent and without logic," says Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Craigen Mosteller.

The Association is backing a bill in the legislature that would split the cost for locked up kids 50-50. The counties would pay half, the state pay half. The counties say the current flawed formula has resulted in the counties being over-charged for costs.  

“When the judge ruled the first time that their rules were inconsistent, counties were paying about 75 percent of the bill," Mosteller says.

The Department of Juvenile Justice denies it owes counties anything.

“It has led to a lot of ill will and misunderstandings on the part of the counties. They may feel they’re overpaying, but they’re only paying what the cost of the system is," says DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters.

She agrees the funding scheme currently in place doesn’t make much sense, and supports splitting costs equally with the counties. But she disagrees the counties should be reimbursed. DJJ has been working for years to steer kids away from detention, and it’s worked. However, as Walters points out, the cost of a facility that’s empty isn’t much different from one that’s full.

“So we’ve seen the number of children going into detention centers decline—that means the daily cost per child is going up. So there’s a perception on the part of the counties that they feel they’re overpaying, she says.

Whether counties are actually owed anything is a major sticking point between the House and Senate. The House version of the bill would reimburse the counties about $140 million they say is owed due to overpayment. But that’s not in the Senate’s version of the bill.

“One of the principles that a lot of us involved in this process espouse for other people is personal responsibility and paying our debts and things like that," said Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) during a recent committee hearing. Latvala had tried to get reimbursement language added onto the Senate detention cost bill but withdrew his amendment.

“You know, when the shoe was on the other foot, with Medicaid—we were for getting our money back from the counties. And they have every right and reason to think they ought to get some money back from us on this issue," he said.

A few years ago the counties alleged the Agency for Healthcare Administration had overcharged them for their share of Medicaid costs. Counties sued and in the end, the state agreed to reduce the charges.

Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says his proposal to split the costs for juvenile detention equally between the state and counties addresses the overpayment issue, and creates a simpler funding formula to base rates off actual costs.

“The percentage is more favorable to the counties...than perhaps it would otherwise be in light of the counties complaint that they feel they’re owed money, Bradley says. "If that wasn’t the case...then the percentage would be more favorable to the state than is reflected in this bill.” 

If the House and Senate can’t agree, The Department of Juvenile Justice says counties will pay 53 percent of the cost, while the state pays 47 percent. Walters says the department based those figures on the current formula everyone seems to agree is flawed. She says if the status quo prevails, “I suspect this will all just continue.”

Both the counties and the department hope the legislature can reach a deal, because neither side wants to go back to court.