No person exemplifies Broward County’s raging clash of cultures better than the county’s top public defender, Howard Finkelstein. He is, at once, an unabashed proponent for human rights, a diminutive loudmouth, a champion for the poor and mentally ill; a tanned, ponytailed, ex-party monster; a grateful man of God; a television personality; and an unwavering voice of reason in a town where men of his character are in short supply.
Perhaps due to this mishmash of personality traits, Finkelstein, age 62, has been able to navigate the local political machine adroitly over the years. He has been Broward’s top public defender since 2004 (following a long career as an assistant public defender) and has done more for the county’s poor than just about anyone who’s ever lived here.
On Monday, Finkelstein, who is nearing the end of his third four-year term, officially filed to run for reelection. New Times can report, however, that if he wins, his next term will be his last.
“Most people who hang on too long develop too great an affection for the trappings of power,” he said in an interview yesterday. “I meet people who have been in power for 25 years, and I walk into their offices, and it’s like a time capsule. I don’t ever want to be the crazy old uncle that we put at the far table in the back of the room.”
Finkelstein says he developed his sense of ethics as a teen in the 1960s. He earned his law degree from the University of Miami in 1978. He then blossomed into a “hot-shot young lawyer representing drug cartels” and developed a taste for drugs and alcohol himself. After crashing his car while also carrying cocaine and prescription pills, he pleaded guilty to drug possession charges in 1987.
After narrowly avoiding disbarment, Finkelstein developed into an accomplished public servant. He is known nationally for starting Broward County’s mental health diversionary court, the first of its kind in the country. (Though the court was originally designed to help keep the mentally ill out of jail, Finkelstein now claims those who pass through the court are now often worse off than they would be in regular court.)
When Finkelstein was first elected a public defender, "black and brown people who were poor" typically met their lawyers for the first time at their arraignments, and, Finkelstein says, 85 percent of those defendants pleaded guilty within the first five minutes of their cases. "We were able to end 'meet-greet-and-plead,' something I am incredibly proud of," he said.
Finkelstein is perhaps best-known to the public as the face of “Help Me Howard,” a recurring segment on WSVN-TV’s Channel 7 News, in which Finkelstein helps explain complex legal issues to folks who write into the station asking him for help. He said the fate of “Help Me Howard” has nothing to do with his retirement. The network, he said, will decide how long he gets to stay on the air.
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If Finkelstein is reelected, he will be in his late 60s by the time he leaves office. He says he’s done just about all he’s set out to do, save what he sees as one final, glaring issue. He wants to drag State Attorney Mike Satz "into the 21st Century” on mental health treatment, he said. “And that’s not just for his edification. He is the single largest constipatory factor in Broward’s criminal justice system.”
After years of writing letters and op-eds, Finkelstein said leniency for mentally ill defendants seems to be on the horizon. "I want to stay here and make sure that happens," he said.
At the moment, Finkelstein is running unopposed. But after a possible fourth term, he said the office will need new blood to revitalize itself. "There has to be change," he said. Broward, which he said used to operate like a "small, Southern town," is now a large, majority-minority county. And he thinks a new public defender ought to reflect that.
"The fact that someone like me, who was addicted to drugs, an ex-hippie, involved in the antiwar movement and Black Panther movement, the fact that the county let me be part of the decision-making process — and cause as much trouble as I could with police and people of power — I have so much gratitude," he said. "I got to live my dream because of the people of Broward County."