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Howard Finkelstein: A Crusader for Justice

Howard Finkelstein has come a long way from his days as an upstate New York student activist in the 1960s. But in many ways the public defender for Broward County for the past 12 years hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still a passionate crusader for the underdog, and a fierce critic of people in power who stomp on their rights.

“Throughout my life, I have tried to level the playing field so those who are accused of a crime and are poor are treated the same as if they could hire their own lawyers,” said Finkelstein, who has served as Broward’s public defender since 2004. “Our office motto, ‘each shall stand equal,’ was inspired by the Declaration of Independence.”

Finkelstein has spent 39 years as an advocate for criminal defendants and nearly two decades helping South Florida consumers on the “Help Me Howard” television show. He’s also devoted to his family, including his wife Donna and their daughters, Saria and Shayna. His hobbies include reading, exercise, philosophy, yoga, and meditation.

Through the years, Finkelstein has been recognized by many organizations for his work and his community service, including the Harry Gulkin Award for Honesty and Integrity from the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (1996), the Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers (2000), and the Independent Spirit Award from the Center for Independent Living (2002). The Broward County Commission has also recognized his contributions with “Howard Finkelstein Day” on six separate occasions.

Finkelstein’s office now has about 200 staffers, including 150 attorneys and 10 investigators. They handle about 37,000 cases a year, a substantial drop from the 59,000 cases a decade ago. “Our office has been chronically underfunded for decades,” he said. “Although the crime rate has gone down, the cases are more complex than ever.”

But Finkelstein is proud of his staff of young and experienced lawyers. “Our public defenders have incredible case loads,” he said. “But they are dedicated to our clients, and ensure that our system of justice continues to have a strong legal system of checks and balances.”

Birth of a Defender

Born in New York City, Finkelstein grew up in Binghamton and moved with his family to Hollywood, Florida, in 1969 when he was 15. His father Maurice was a real estate broker, but Finkelstein gravitated toward social work instead of business. He became an activist in that turbulent time in the nation’s history, and earned his bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral sciences from the University of South Florida in 1975 and his juris doctor from the University of Miami School of Law in 1978.

“I wanted to go to law school so I could be a public defender,” said Finkelstein, who accepted a certified legal internship with the Broward office in his third year of law school. After passing the bar, he spend three years with the office and seven years in private practice as a partner in Brackey, Finkelstein and Dallas, focusing on the defense of people charged with drug crimes.

In 1988, Finkelstein moved back to government service as chief assistant in the Broward Public Defender’s Office. In that role, he played a pivotal role in initiating the first mental health court in the country and later followed by a felony mental health court.

That pioneering effort grew out of a high-profile case in the late 1980s involving a mentally ill man in his 20s who was hearing voices. The man ran out of a supermarket and knocked down an 89-year-old woman, who fell and died when her head hit the ground.

After the man was arrested for murder, Finkelstein drove to the family home. “His mother cried as she told me how she worried every day about what her son might do,” he said. “Her story shook me to my core.”

Realizing that this tragedy was not an isolated case, Finkelstein asked a Broward grand jury to investigate the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS). The result was a report excoriating HRS for failure to help Floridians with mental health problems.

“Then, I asked one of our Broward judges to chair a task force,” Finkelstein said. “At the first meeting, he asked for suggestions, and I told them ‘we need to set up a court for the mentally ill.’ It had never been done before, but we got the backing of the state attorney, the county’s judges and went ahead. Today, the Broward court is a national model for communities around the country.”

Addressing Racial Disparities

One of Finkelstein’s most important causes is shining a light on the disparity between how blacks and whites are treated by the criminal justice system in South Florida and throughout the county.

“In Broward, blacks who were walking, biking or driving would be pulled over by the police,” he said. “When I became public defender in 2004, I hired several retired cops as investigators and told them to find out the truth about these cases, one way or another. That step made a big difference in the outcome of many cases. For instance, one black man was arrested for having a missing taillight on his car; but a check of the police logs showed the officer was heading toward the car and couldn’t have seen the rear lights. The case was dismissed.”

In the past few years, more Americans have become aware of the racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system, Finkelstein said. Police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago, among other cities, have been captured on video, shown on TV and uploaded to social media, sparking outrage in many communities. “Racial injustice has been a theme of American life for decades, but now there is evidence that the people in power cannot ignore,” he said.

In fact, Finkelstein — who plans to leave office after his four-year term ends in 2020 — says the next public defender should be a man or woman of color. “Broward is changing and our government and courts should reflect those changes,” he said.

A TV Analyst and Activist 

Back in 1994, Finkelstein was watching a National Basketball Association game on TV with his family, when the broadcast was interrupted by a news bulletin. O.J. Simpson was driving a white Bronco in a slow-motion police chase in Los Angeles.

Soon afterwards, Finkelstein took a call from WSVN Channel 7 News asking him to provide commentary on the preliminary court hearing. Finkelstein wound up covering the “trial of the century” gavel to gavel. “Unlike other analysts who gave their opinions, I talked about the strategies both sides were using and trusted the viewers to make up their own minds about this deeply traumatic case.”

After that extended trial coverage, Finkelstein became an on-air legal analyst for the Fox news station, has provided ongoing commentary during the Oklahoma bombing trials, the President Clinton impeachment proceedings, the Terry Schiavo right to die case and the Michael Jackson child molestation case.

For the past 19 years, Finkelstein has also been the star of “Help Me Howard,” a consumer advocacy show produced by Patrick Fraser that airs regularly on Channel 7. “I am very proud of how we’ve been able to help people in the middle class solve their problems,” he said. “As a public defender, I represent the poor, and with this show I get to harness the power of television to help everyday people with the problems in life.”

Finkelstein said one of the finest moments of his life was being able to help Broward waitress Margaret Daigle, who needed a liver transplant but couldn’t afford the procedure. “When Patrick and I investigated, we found that a county commissioner’s son had quietly received a liver transplant at Broward General Medical Center when poor patients had been turned down,” he said. “As a result of our reporting, Margaret got her liver transplant. Because of her, the poor people of Broward who need a transplant now have an equal chance for a longer life.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2017 Edition 

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