State lawmakers facing a budget deficit estimated as high as $200 million will have little choice but to spend scarce money to continue retooling Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, a top lawmaker said Tuesday.

Democratic Rep. Michael Lawlor, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said after a forum at the Capitol that legislators will have to spend money or a judge will require the General Assembly to do so.

“I’m not 100 percent sure where new money will come from,” Lawlor said. “We’ll have to find it one way or the other because a federal court will order us to do it.”

A 1997 federal consent decree ordered the state to improve conditions in its juvenile detention centers. As many as 20 youths are sleeping on the floor on any given day, in violation of the federal court order.

A spokesman for Gov. John G. Rowland said the governor is preparing next year’s proposed budget and has not decided if he will seek changes in spending on juvenile detention centers.

The forum, called by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, drew an audience of nearly 150 to review the complicated issues of youth crime and punishment. The 2002 legislative session begins Feb. 6.

–Associated Press