Public Defender Balks At Florida Mental Health Court


When it was conceived a decade ago, Broward County, Florida's felony mental health court won wide praise and inspired imitators around the U.S. because of its groundbreaking approach to the handling of mentally ill defendants. Howard Finkelstein, the elected public defender, was one of its biggest advocates. The Miami Herald reports that Finkelstein has soured on the court, saying its mission has shifted from treating mentally ill individuals with compassion to patching up their mental well-being so they can be punished for behavior that was beyond their control when it happened.

Finkelstein told Chief Judge Peter Weinstein his office would no longer refer clients to the court. The public defender's office currently has 1,560 cases in mental health court. Judge Mark Speiser, who, like Finkelstein, helped create the court and is one of its two presiding judges, said the program’s aim remains the same as always. “[It] was designed to address the needs of people that have mental health issues and give them treatment instead of jail time,” he said. “But if they are found competent or found incompetent but their competency restorable, they need to be prosecuted.”

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