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Broward Criminal Justice System To Get Major Overhaul In Upcoming Primary Election

Broward courthouse
Shannon Kaestle
Miami Herald

Broward voters will choose brand new faces for two of the most important criminal justice positions in the county, for the first time in a long time.

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz was first elected in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter won the presidential election, and he has won every election ever since. Howard Finkelstein was elected Broward County’s Public Defender in 2004. Before that, he was a top official for decades.

But this election cycle, both institutional faces are retiring at the same time. In wake of those retirements, Broward County’s criminal justice system could look very different in the months ahead.

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“It’s probably two of the most important offices,” says Catalina Avalos, a former prosecutor and Broward County judge who is now in private practice. “They impact our community. They impact our youth as well, because the policies that are made determine how our youth are going to be — before a kid used to get into a fight at school and that was a normal behavior growing up. And now, how do you look at that in order to criminalize it or not?”

Questions like this have become even more cutting in Broward County in aftermath of the tragic 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The confessed shooter had a lengthy disciplinary record in school, and a state law passed in the wake of that shooting mandated police officers at every public school in the state.

“The focus has to be on violent crimes and on victim crimes. And who is going to be better equipped to address those issues?” said Avalos. “Also you have issues with drugs. How is the State Attorney’s Office going to prosecute and enforce drug laws?”

The backdrop of national and local protests against police violence and systemic racism have become a major factor of the campaign cycle. Outgoing public defender Finkelstein says the nationwide reckoning is one of the reasons he is willing to retire at this point.

“What many people now refer to as the Black Lives Matter movement is finally the hearing by America of what I have been screaming for decades,” says Finkelstein.

Read More: Protests and Marches Continue to Demand Justice And Equity For Black Americans

Finkelstein says the next leaders will need to address a broad list of issues in Broward County. Over the years his office has collected and published data about systemic problems, like large racial disparities in seat belt citations, marijuana arrests, and tickets for riding a bicycle without a permit in Fort Lauderdale.

“Understand, in Broward County, we lead the United States of America in convicting the wrong person of murder,” he says.

Outgoing state attorney Satz declined to be interviewed for this story. Last year, his office started a “Conviction Review Unit” to revisit old cases, one of the few offices in the nation to do so.

The biggest gripe Finkelstein has with the local criminal justice system is with the war on drugs, something he characterizes more colorfully.

“There was no drug war. There was a war on poor Black and Brown people, period,” he says. “It built a lawyer industrial complex that was able to provide employment and money for lawyers, judges, prosecutors, drug counselors, probation officers. Before the war on drugs, you didn't need all these judges and prosecutors and public defenders. You didn't need these big courthouses.”

Today, he is optimistic that Broward County’s future state attorney and public defender will be able to move past the war on drugs and focus more exclusively on victim crimes.

“We fought the battle. It was a righteous battle,” he says, citing the war on drugs. “The battle is over, and as a people, as a community and as a nation, we need to move beyond that. And the way you move beyond that is not to get somebody who was part of all of that. Get somebody from the next generation.”

With both races wide open, a large slew of candidates are vying for those seats. Eight candidates are in the running for the top prosecutor job. Three are running to be elected public defender.

The options for Broward’s new prosecutor range from staffers of the current office to a Bernie Sanders-endorsed candidate running on a platform of not prosecuting sex work crimes like prostitution.

To win a seat, candidates will need to take at least 50 percent of the vote. A runoff election is likely in both cases ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, which would be settled in November.

“Everyone is anxious. Everyone in the community who’s affected by this is anxious to find out who the people in charge are gonna be,” says Bill Barner, the Vice President of the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Whoever wins the seats, Barner hopes that they build a good working relationship together to instill long-needed reforms. For example, he hopes the new prosecutor and public defender will be able to work to streamline some criminal cases, and overall make the system work more efficiently.

“I’m not talking about a good ol’ boys club where the prosecutor and the judge and the defense attorney sit in a room and go golfing together and they make decisions in a smoky room. This is not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is a good ability to work together toward a common goal,” he says. “The more friction you see, the tougher it is to get done what needs to get done.”