Counties and DJJ claim victory in reimbursement battle

Jail Bars

Both the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and 27 counties challenging the agency are claiming victory over a judge’s ruling in a long-running dispute about the costs of detaining juvenile offenders.

Either way, it could affect pending legislation, as lawmakers try again this year to resolve a quarrel dating back to 2004.

Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins on Wednesday found that some parts of a rule proposed by the department last year “constitute an invalid exercise of legislatively delegated authority.” The proposed rule deals with how costs should be split between the state and counties.

“It (Watkins’ ruling) emphasizes the need for legislative action,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties. “Once again a judge has ruled that DJJ has not done rulemaking right. In a decade, they have not been able to correctly interpret the statute.”

But department officials said Watkins’ most important finding was in their favor. That issue involves situations in which juvenile offenders commit probation violations. The state and counties have long battled about who should pay detention costs in such circumstances.

“This is because the statute simply does not address the situation where a youth commits multiple substantive law violations over time and thus has the status of both post-disposition (commitment or probation) and predisposition (detained and awaiting final court disposition on a new charge),” Watkins wrote. “The department’s interpretation that detention arising from a new law violation by a youth on probation is the responsibility of the counties is certainly one reasonable interpretation … is not clearly erroneous, and is entitled to deference.”

A 2004 law requires counties to pay “pre-disposition” costs associated with juveniles waiting for cases to be resolved in court. The department pays the costs of detaining youths whose cases have been decided — known as “post-disposition.” But the two sides have never agreed on what those terms meant. Instead, they’ve been embroiled in a series of legal battles about how to carry out the law, with the counties arguing they have been overcharged.

“We are proud of our partnership with counties as we work together to provide troubled youth with the kind of support network they need to live productive and lawful lives,” Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo wrote in an email. “For some time, the courts have been reviewing Florida’s detention cost-share statutes, and we are pleased that the courts have both affirmed the department’s position and provided all parties with greater clarity into these processes.”

The clash stretches through several administrative hearings and the 1st District Court of Appeal, with a potential legislative compromise failing on the final day of the 2014 session.

Lawmakers again this year have tried to come up with a legislative solution. A House bill (HB 5201) would require counties to pay 57 percent of juvenile-detention costs, while the state would pick up 43 percent — not a 50-50 split sought by the counties.

The counties have long argued that their costs for juvenile detention amounted to an unfunded mandate. Watkins in 2012 ruled against the state in a rule fight, and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld his decision.

After that appeals-court ruling, lawmakers last year considered a bill that would have created a 50-50 split. But that bill died when counties insisted on recouping $140 million for past overpayments.

Now Mosteller contends that Watkins’ ruling strengthens the counties’ case for “a fair 50-50 split with a repayment.”

“I hope this ruling will make it apparent to the Legislature that DJJ cannot interpret the statute correctly, and that we need new legislation, that DJJ has consistently through the years been haphazard in their rulemaking,” Mosteller said. “We need to move forward with a new law that gets us out of this bureaucratic mess and puts us in a position that we can better take care of the taxpayer dollars as well as the youths that need our help.”

The fate of this year’s legislation remains unclear. The House bill was approved by the Appropriations Committee in late March but has not been heard by the full House. A Senate bill (SB 1414) was approved by a subcommittee this month but has not moved further. Senate sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has said the counties’ requests for repayments were “likely a bridge too far.”

In addition to the Florida Association of Counties, the petitioners in the case include Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Martin, Nassau, Okaloosa, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Walton and Volusia counties. Duval County and the city of Jacksonville filed a petition to intervene, which was granted.

Thirty-five counties split juvenile-detention costs with the state. The remaining counties are considered “fiscally constrained” and are not required to contribute.