At $280 a day, housing juvenile offenders is too costly, county officials say

TAMPA — Crime has a steep price for taxpayers when it's committed by a child in most parts of Florida.

Try $280 a day.

That's the amount that the state charges Florida's largest counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, for each day a child stays in a juvenile detention awaiting the outcome of a case.

Put another way, it's about $40 more than the Tampa Marriott Waterside & Marina's promotional rate for a weekend night in a waterfront room. And it's more than three times what it costs to house an adult inmate in Hillsborough County.

The amount has irked officials from Florida's largest counties. They say they are granted little opportunity to reduce their bills, while small, rural counties pay nothing.

"The numbers are staggering when you look at them on a financial basis," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who will ask his colleagues today to form a task force to assess how the county deals with young offenders.

In Hillsborough, the juvenile detention tab for children awaiting disposition of their cases was $7.6 million last year, all of it picked up by local taxpayers. Pinellas county residents paid $5.4 million, while Pasco County forked over $1.7 million.

State Department of Juvenile Justice officials say their costs shouldn't be compared with adult jails, and certainly not the cost of a hotel stay. Young detainees require close supervision. They're housed in smaller buildings than the typical adult jail and separated by age, gender and the seriousness of their crimes.

Just the same, they said they welcome any effort to reduce the need for juvenile detention.

"We applaud any commissioner going out and dealing with the youth in their community," said Jason Welty, the DJJ's legislative director. "It's a very complex issue and it's convoluted at its core."

Juvenile detention costs have been a sore spot among county officials since the state began charging for the service in 2005. That year, the legislature decided to start treating juvenile detention like adult incarceration, with counties picking up pre-trial jail costs and the state paying for those found guilty and sentenced to prison.

With juveniles, the state oversees both forms of incarceration in the same buildings. The complex formula used to determine the counties' financial share offers little incentive for reducing the number of locked-up children.

"Regardless of the alternatives you put in place, there's no guarantee of being able to save taxpayer money," said Tim Burns, director of justice and consumer service in Pinellas County, which has pursued its own initiatives to reduce juvenile detention rolls in recent years. The current system, Burns said, is an unfunded mandate that gives counties little influence over cost savings.

That represents an early challenge for Beckner, though he says saving money is only part of his goal.

Beckner is seeking a task force to improve the way juvenile offenders are handled, something he hopes could also lead to savings.

He is touting the reforms implemented by Miami-Dade County, which have drawn nationwide attention. There, the county created its own juvenile justice department that conducts intensive early assessments of children accused of crimes, starting with their first offense, before they enter the state system.

The goal is to get at the root of what is causing a child to break the law and find help for them outside of the criminal justice system. Offenders are given civil citations, directed to counseling programs tailored to their needs and their record kept clean if they complete community service or other tasks.

The program is credited with contributing to sharp declines in juvenile crime and the number of children who are put in detention or become repeat offenders.

Wansley Walters, Miami-Dade's director of juvenile services, said the program saves court costs and the long-term financial toll of dealing with the people who return as adult criminals. But she acknowledged that the current state system makes it difficult for counties to benefit financially for keeping kids out of juvenile detention.

In fact, what DJJ charges counties has been increasing even as the number of children being detained has fallen statewide.

"This continual increase in costs is discouraging communities like Miami-Dade and other counties from doing things to improve the system," Walters said.

Here's the challenge. Each year the legislature determines the overall amount counties should pay for juvenile detention based on historical trends. Last year, it was about $95 million statewide.

Larger, more densely populated counties then pre-pay their share based on their historical percentage of children they have in detention. Nearly 30 counties are exempted because they are considered financially constrained in their ability to pay, and the state picks up their share. The DJJ's Welty said they are not subsidized by the paying counties.

Welty also said the cost of running the state's 25 detention centers doesn't change much even if the population fluctuates. One facility in St. John's County was closed last year, and three are more are targeted for closure in next year's budget – including one of two Hillsborough sites.

"That's the only way we can reduce our costs," Welty said. "Our costs aren't reduced by the fact that we have 45 kids in a 50-bed facility."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

At $280 a day, housing juvenile offenders is too costly, county officials say 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 9:45pm]

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