howard-finkelstein.jpgFORT LAUDERDALE – Howard Finkelstein is a ‘60s throwback.

Broward’s ponytailed Chief Public Defender is known for attacking archaic justice systems with the cavalier courage of a “fight-the-power” activist. He is the founder of the country’s first court for mentally ill defendants.

And he has a unique standing in unempowered black communities, where many say the 1960s is exactly where some measures of justice have gotten stuck. 

“He’s one of the original hippies,’’ said Chief Assistant Public Defender of Mental Health Douglas Brawley.

“He’s about peace, love, equality for all people. He hasn’t sold out.”

Finkelstein, 54, of WSVN 7-News’ “Help Me Howard” fame, is the constant advocate. He recently joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP in supporting the rights of five homeless men who claim a man chased them with chainsaws in a Fort Lauderdale neighborhood.

His long-standing career with the Public Defender’s Office, and his ability to overcome his own demons, have made him a favorite son of advocacy and community service in South Florida.

“He’s always been such a champion of the poor and those in the community who just didn’t have any other voice,” said League of Women Voters of Broward County President Marcia Barham. “He was a hands-down choice.”

The League will give Finkelstein the 2nd Annual Civics in Action award during an April 26 luncheon in Sunrise.

In Broward County, the powerless have often been black male defendants who, because of their low socioeconomic status, have become the most tragic victims of the “system,” said Finkelstein.

Poor defendants may fall into even greater jeopardy due to a proposed 10 percent state budget cut to the public defender’s office, or about $1.5 million.

Already, as a result of a budget cut of more than $1 million in the current fiscal year, there are 22 vacancies in that office, Finkelstein said in a letter last month to Gov. Charlie Crist.

The cuts would give public defenders less time to handle more cases, Finkelstein's letter stated.

An additional 10 percent cut would mean the termination of about 19 employees, he said.

“We are hopeful that this immediate crisis will be averted,’’ Finkelstein wrote in his March 18 letter to the governor, “and that next year’s budget will not force us into the untenable position of having to refuse to take additional cases because we cannot adequately and effectively represent indigent citizens as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Florida Constitution.’’

Finkelstein once found himself on the other side of the justice system in the 1980s, after a five-year battle with cocaine addiction, which ended when he crashed into a police patrol car while under the influence.

Since then, he has gotten his life back on track, and has empowered himself to help others, too.

His body of work includes several procedural milestones, such as establishing the county’s drug court. He also shaped policy that places a probation officer trained in mental illness issues with mentally ill detainees.

Shortly after taking the helm of the Public Defender’s office in 2005, he changed arraignment procedures to ensure defendants received more quality time with lawyers before delivering their pleas.

Before the change, Finkelstein’s mostly black, male defendants, who couldn’t afford to hire private lawyers, were forced to plead under pressure, and after spending only a few minutes with their court-appointed attorneys.

Many of the innocent pleaded guilty, said Finkelstein, just to get back to their low-paying jobs.

“If you were poor and black and got a public defender, you were handcuffed to a chair and you had five minutes to make a decision,” said Finkelstein, adding that many white clients disproportionately have the option to hire influential private attorneys.

Finkelstein also spearheaded efforts last year to change the way law enforcement conducts lineup procedures, after the exoneration of  Larry Bostic, an African-American Lauderhill man who was wrongfully charged with sexual battery and jailed for 19 years. He was finally cleared by DNA evidence.

“That’s why most people in the jails are poor and black,’’ he said. “It’s not because they are more of a danger to the community. They just don’t have the money or the power.”

Finkelstein no longer defends individuals in the courtroom himself. He now focuses his efforts on systems that would affect larger numbers of defendants.

“There is an unequal enforcement of justice which is so clearly slated against African-Americans and Hispanics,” said Finkelstein, an active member of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP. “I’m probably one of the few white guys who is not only comfortable but welcome everywhere in the black community.”

Older black people who have lived in Broward County over the past 40 years associate Finkelstein with that comfort level, said Ella Phillips, legislative aide for state rep. Perry E. Thurston Jr. (D-Plantation), and a resident of the historically black Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

“He was always willing to come into our neighborhood when a lot of people were afraid to,” said Phillips. “He would even come and talk to some of the guys on the street and on the corners – the homeless.”

Phillips said she gained a new admiration for Finkelstein during a Holocaust memorial event a few years ago.

“I didn’t know that much about the Holocaust but I realized our histories and the treatment of our people were intertwined,” she said.

Another Finkelstein creation – Broward County’s Summer Justice Institute – immerses 20 South Florida teens in the justice system for two weeks. The mentoring workshop, operated entirely by volunteers in the Public Defender’s Office, serves mostly black and Hispanic teens who are interested in becoming attorneys.

Brawley, the mental health public defender, met Finkelstein 30 years ago when Brawley was a law intern. He said the young Finkelstein quickly gained respect in the courtroom because he was able to get cases dismissed on constitutional arguments.

But what really captured the community’s attraction to Finkelstein, said Brawley, is “his spirituality and effortless ability to connect with a spectrum of communities, cultures, creeds, and lifestyles.”

Brawley continued: “Howard is able to come in and give speeches that even lawyers and politicians could give only if they wrote it and practiced hours before. He gets into the zone and is able to reach out to other people. He’s also been through a lot himself. People can relate.”

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein


WHAT: League of Women Voters of Broward County Annual Meeting and awards luncheon

Noon Saturday, April 26

WHERE: Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites (Formerly Las Palmas), 3003 North University Drive, Sunrise.

COST: $30

CONTACT: H. K. Petey Kaletta, 954-243-3467