Florida wrong to ignore court on juvenile detention overcharges to counties

July 9, 2014 

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Olivia Johnson with Manatee Community Action Agency Head Start wraps gifts Tuesday for the 2013 Christmas Toy Giveaway. People4thePeople and other volunteers wrapped the toys at the Department of Juvenile Justice office for more that 600 children during the holiday season. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice continues to defy a legal ruling that the state is overcharging counties for the detention costs for young offenders. The agency's defiance of a judicial decision last year cannot stand.

Manatee County taxpayers have been robbed for years by this injustice, the impact here being fewer dollars for vital children's programs on pregnancy prevention, gang diversion and more.

Manatee County is now back in court, fighting DJJ once again along with other counties after the agency rejected the judicial interpretation of a 2004 state statute governing those detention costs.

Florida's First District Court of Appeal ruled last summer that the state was unfairly charging dozens of counties 75 percent of detention costs, determining the rate should be 32 percent. Instead, DJJ wants to charge counties 57 percent.

Counties are charged with paying pre-disposition detention costs and then the state assumes the financial burden upon conviction.

The battle boils down to loopholes, with the state maintaining counties are liable for detention costs for convicted juveniles who then violate probation and re-enter the system.

The Legislature failed to solve the impasse this year with measures proposing a 50-50 split dying in the waning hours of the session. Even that fell short of the court decision in favor of counties. Gov. Rick Scott recommended the ruling be ignored and counties be charged 57 percent, rewriting the rules to still favor the state.

The cost to Manatee County is significant -- totaling $1.36 million in fiscal year 2015, an increase of $800,000 over the previous year. Those juvenile detention costs have been coming out of Manatee's Children's Services Tax, a voter-approved property tax that had been pledged for programs that serve neglected, abused, disadvantaged and at-risk children from birth through age 17.

Manatee County hoped to recoup some of the $4 million in state overcharges in recent years, an idea supported in some measure by Bradenton's state Sen. Bill Galvano. But with an estimated $140 million payback statewide, the issue failed, too.

Thirty-eight counties out of 67 in the state are on the hook for the still exorbitant overcharges. The Florida Association of Counties and 25 members, including Manatee, are back in court seeking redress -- again.

After a decade of litigation, at taxpayer expense, the state must comply with the law and judicial rulings. The Legislature must take action to ensure an equitable solution to this burden on county taxpayers.

Here in Manatee County, the children's tax funds programs in a variety of nonprofits, including Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County, Palmetto Youth Center, Just for Girls, United Community Centers, Foundation for Dreams, Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Those safety-net programs could be expanded and not diverted into juvenile detention with a fair settlement between the counties and the state.

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