County to join challenge of juvenile detention costs


Published: Friday, June 13, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 13, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.

With several counties and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice at odds over how to divvy up juvenile detention costs, Alachua County is preparing to get involved in a related legal challenge.

A proposed rule would make the counties responsible for more of those costs, which means Alachua County would be responsible for over $400,000 more in juvenile detention costs next fiscal year compared to the roughly $200,000 it’s paying this fiscal year, said Mark Sexton, the county’s communications and legislative affairs director.

Disposition for juveniles is similar to sentencing. The counties are expected to pay pre-disposition costs for juveniles, and the state is supposed to pay for the detention costs after disposition.

Under the Department of Juvenile Justice’s proposed rule, if a child who already has broken the law and gone through disposition is responsible for a new violation, the county has to pay for the detention costs until the court determines the penalties for this new offense, Sexton said.

Thirty-eight of Florida’s 67 counties are impacted by this cost-sharing dispute.

Florida counties previously won a lawsuit that determined the Department of Juvenile Justice wasn’t billing them properly for juvenile detention costs, Sexton said. Alachua County alone is owed nearly $1 million just for fiscal year 2013 in overcharges.

Following the court ruling, the counties began paying a lesser portion — about 32 percent — of the detention costs.

The bottom line is the court agrees with the counties’ interpretation of state statute regarding this matter, and yet the Department of Juvenile Justice instead is trying to shift the costs to the counties again, Sexton said.

The Florida Association of Counties plans to file a legal challenge to the rule, and the Alachua County Commission decided this week to authorize the county to participate in that challenge, Sexton said. Alachua County plans to be one of the named challengers in that measure.

This past legislative session, proposals for settling the juvenile detention billing issue between the state and the counties were considered but didn’t survive.

“I think everyone is quite frustrated with this, and we’re feeling like we’re being backed into a corner and the only avenue left is the legal challenge,” he said.

Jason Welty, chief of staff for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, said the counties were paying around 75 percent of the costs under a prior rule that was invalidated, while their responsibility under the new rule would be about 57 percent.

Under the proposed rule, the clock would basically reset whenever a juvenile commits a new violation and needs to go back into secure detention to await disposition, making those expenses the counties’ responsibility, Welty said.

When the 2013 court ruling in favor of the counties came down, the Department of Juvenile Justice took on more responsibility than it should have when it assigned the counties just 32 percent of the cost, he explained. He sees that as a one-time anomaly because of time constraints.

“Basically, we billed this year in error,” he said.

The agency had a tight timeframe in which to address the court ruling before the current fiscal year began in July 2013, so in an abundance of caution it took on a greater portion of the costs. Once the department had the opportunity to go back and review the situation, it was clear the new cost split included in the proposed rule would be more appropriate.

Welty said he understands where the counties are coming from.

“I understand it from a standpoint that they are looking at this year’s billing and saying, ‘Man, we’re getting a really good deal,’ ” he said.

However, he said his agency feels like it’s providing as fair a rule as possible with this proposal that is more in line with the state Legislature’s public policy on this matter.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 at morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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