THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 18, 2012 -
Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
In an issue that has spurred legal challenges from various parts of the state, an administrative law judge Tuesday ruled that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has improperly shifted juvenile-detention costs to counties.
Judge W. David Watkins sided with four counties in a 49-page ruling that even included a flow chart to try to explain the intricacies of the juvenile-justice system. Nassau and Okaloosa counties filed the case and were later joined as plaintiffs by Bay and Pinellas counties.
The case centered, in part, on how the department has interpreted a state law that requires counties to pay detention costs before court "disposition" of juveniles' cases. DJJ in recent years has interpreted the requirement to mean counties are responsible for the costs until juveniles are committed to state detention facilities.
But Watkins said the interpretation is too narrow and doesn't take into account other scenarios that can happen after juvenile courts rule in cases. As an example, DJJ's interpretation requires counties to pick up costs for juveniles who are detained because of probation violations.
"The overall impact of the definitional change from 'final court disposition' to 'commitment' has been a reduction in the number of detention days assigned to the state and an increase in the number of days assigned to the counties,'' Watkins wrote. "This shift in days numbers in the tens of thousands."
In a document filed earlier this year, DJJ said its interpretation was supported by state law.
"The department's usage of the term 'commitment' is in harmony with the term 'final court disposition' contained in Florida Statute … because it (commitment) establishes a bright line" to determine whether costs should be paid by counties or the state, the document said..
The case is part of a series of legal disputes that have involved at least 10 counties. Watkins also ruled in favor of the counties in a related issue about how the department reconciles the counties' costs.
It is not clear from the case how much money could be involved statewide. But, for instance, Okaloosa County disputed nearly $1.1 million in costs during the 2009-10 fiscal year, and Nassau County took issue with $97,000, according to document in the case.