Disagreeing with a judge’s key findings, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on Thursday stood behind its controversial handling of a law that requires counties to help pay juvenile-detention costs.
The department, in a case involving 14 local governments and the Florida Association of Counties, filed an order rejecting arguments that its interpretation of the law has improperly shifted extra costs to counties. Administrative Law Judge Lawrence Stevenson sided with the counties in August, but his decision was a recommendation that went back to the department for final action.
The dispute centers on the law’s requirement that counties pay detention costs before court disposition of juvenile cases. Counties have argued, in part, that the department has too narrowly interpreted “predisposition” costs by, for example, requiring counties to pay costs for juveniles who are detained because of probation violations.
In the 23-page final order filed Thursday, however, the department disputed that argument.
“It is true that the department’s interpretation makes the counties responsible for the large majority of detention stays,” said the order, signed by department Secretary Wansley Walters. “But there can be no doubt that this is precisely what the Legislature had in mind, and the proof is found in the funding. The Legislature initially funded detention cost sharing so that the counties would be responsible for 89 percent of detention costs and the state would be responsible for 11 percent.”
The order is part of a series of legal battles about the cost-sharing requirements. The department last summer went to the 1st District Court of Appeal to challenge another administrative law judge’s ruling that DJJ was using invalid rules in carrying out the requirements. In that case, which remains pending, the department did not have the power to issue a final order after the judge’s decision.
Gregory Stewart, an attorney who represents Okaloosa County, said he also expects an appeal of Thursday’s order. Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, said her group was “certainly disappointed” in the order, but attorneys will have to determine whether to appeal.
Meanwhile, the detention-costs issue also could emerge during the upcoming legislative session. Mosteller said a work group, including representatives of the department, individual counties and the association of counties, has met to try to resolve differences. If a solution is reached, it could go to the Legislature.
“I think the intent is to find a result that is fair,” Mosteller said.
The case was filed in 2010 by Alachua, Broward, Escambia, Hernando, Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas and Santa Rosa counties. Later intervening were Bay, Brevard, Hillsborough, Okaloosa and Seminole counties and the city of Jacksonville, which has many of the duties of Duval County government.
Stevenson, who issued a 97-page decision, found in part that the department did not use actual costs in determining how much counties should pay for detention services during the 2008-09 fiscal year. His recommended solutions varied by county, but the most far-reaching involved Miami-Dade, Broward and Hernando counties, where he wrote the department should “without undue delay,” provide a revised assessment that details the actual costs of providing the detention services.
The judge found that the state overestimated the number of days that juveniles would need county-paid detention services during the year. But he wrote that the department did not change the amount of money counties were expected to pay “regardless of whether the counties’ actual predisposition days bore any relation to the estimate made before the start of the fiscal year.”
But in the final order Thursday, the department disputed Stevenson’s conclusions about actual costs and took a broader view of the counties’ responsibilities for helping fund the detention system.
“A county’s jurisdictional boundaries are not at all relevant to its obligation to pay detention costs under the statute; similarly irrelevant are the location of the detention center and the specific center’s operating costs,” the order said. “Rather, each paying county is responsible for its resident youths’ predisposition stays, wherever the youth is held in the department’s statewide detention system and regardless of whether the particular youth required bare minimal or extraordinary services while detained.”