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Counties Say Move To Settle Juvenile Detention Cost Dispute Isn't Enough

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

Florida’s counties and the state legislature remain at odds over who should be responsible for funding juvenile detention. The issue has been mired in lawsuits for years, but House lawmakers are trying to break the log-jam.

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 system 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 wrong and say the state keeps changing the rules.

“In ten years, the DJJ has never sent us a correct bill," says Escambia County Commissioner and Florida Association of Counties President, Grover Washington.

Two different courts have sided with the counties in the billing dispute. The DJJ revised its cost formula, but counties continue to challenge it. No one really knows what the right amount of cost-share is, and   Escambia’s Washington says, “with DJJ over-billing counties, over-paid by $200 million, I would also hope we could get back to a place where we could talk about some reasonable repayment schedule.”

Florida counties aren’t accepting a plan in the legislature that would put the brunt of costs for housing juvenile offenders on them. Lawmakers were close to reaching a deal last year to evenly split the cost with the counties, but it failed. Now, they’re trying again, but the counties aren’t impressed. Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinley says the House proposal is unfair.

“These terms have no basis in relating to actual costs, disregard to debt owed, represent a cost-shift to counties, and represent a continued injustice in this important cost-sharing relationship," she told the House's Justice Appropriations Committee.

The House plan calls for the state to pay 43 percent of costs to house juvenile offenders. Counties would pitch in the rest. Those considered cash-strapped, would continue to be exempt from cost-sharing.  The counties preferred last year’s compromise deal, which split the bill 50-50.

But missing, is a reimbursement to counties for overpayments due to DJJ’s bad system. Right now, the tab is at $200 million and counting, and counties want their money back. The legislature agrees they should get it.

Seminole Republican Rep. Larry Ahern calls the entire dispute a bureaucratic nightmare that, "keeps billing incorrectly. And ultimately this bill at least stops the bleeding, I’d hope. So we can further find out how the agency and why the agency has continued to collect this money with a flawed formula.”

The House is trying to outline a clear funding plan moving forward. House Justice Committee Chairman and bill sponsor Larry Metz says he hasn’t forgotten about giving counties their money back. But there’s still more work that has to be done.

“We have to figure out the past arrearage so we can end the litigation that’s pending over that. That’s a financial issue for the subcommittee and a negotiation point between us and the counties. We’ve promised to bring that in for a landing before session is over, but we couldn’t have it finalized for this.”

Stakeholders say the House plan may be the best bet for the counties. There’s a companion measure in the Senate—but it puts the cost-share at 60-40—meaning: the counties, would be charged even more for juvenile detention.