Broward County Will Elect Its First New Prosecutor in 44 Years. Will the Office Veer Left?

In South Florida, the crowded Aug. 18 Democratic primary features one candidate who says he would not prosecute sex work and marijuana possession cases.

Jerry Iannelli   |    August 11, 2020

Broward County (State Attorney’s Office/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

In South Florida, the crowded Aug. 18 Democratic primary features one candidate who says he would not prosecute sex work and marijuana possession cases.

Broward County, Florida, will elect a new prosecutor for the first time since 1976 in November. And it is all but assured that the winner will be a Democrat. Broward—home to Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, around 2 million people, and the state’s strongest Democratic political machine—virtually always votes blue. But the county has historically been downright hostile to candidates who lean too far left—and friendly to public officials who champion carceral politics.

Joe Kimok, an unabashedly progressive defense lawyer running for state attorney in the Aug. 18 Democratic primary, believes Broward’s typically centrist-Democratic voting bloc is ready to elect a candidate who believes the criminal legal system needs systemic, top-down change. Kimok, who is endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, would stop prosecuting crimes related to sex work, stop charging cases that stem from poverty, and peel back “tough on crime” policies that have been the norm in South Florida for most of the last century.

“I will tell you, when I started campaigning, that was a question that weighed very heavily on me,” Kimok, who is also a former prosecutor, told The Appeal: Political Report this month about the county’s perceived politics. “I assumed I was going to have to go out and educate voters on the problems with the system. But that has not been my experience. On issues, voters seem like they’re there already—or even farther than we are.”

Signaling at least some shift in Broward County’s politics, some of the other seven Democratic candidates also emphasize a desire to change its status quo and bring about some criminal justice reforms, though their platforms are not as far-reaching when it comes to pushing for decarceration.

Perhaps no politician in Broward exemplifies the county’s punitive politics than its chief prosecutor, State Attorney Mike Satz, a stern, 77-year-old, unapologetically tough-on-crime conservative Democrat. Satz is retiring at the end of his term.

Satz was first elected in 1976, when Broward County was still mostly a Southern, white enclave and not an international tourism destination. For nearly five decades, Satz’s tough-on-crime ethos has barely changed. Broward County, for example, has convicted  11 people who were later exonerated —the highest total in the state. (That includes two people who’d been sentenced to death.) Despite the county’s history of wrongful convictions, Satz’s office didn’t create a conviction integrity unit until 2019.

For years, Satz’s loudest critic has been longtime Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, a ponytailed, media-savvy former defense lawyer for drug cartels who turned his life around after getting arrested for crashing his car while carrying cocaine and prescription pills in 1987. Finkelstein has been the county’s top public defender since his election in 2004 and is also retiring this year.

In August 2019, Finkelstein wrote an open letter to Satz accusing him of, among other things, lackadaisically filing death penalty charges, needlessly trying children in adult court, and refusing to discipline Broward sheriff’s department officials who oversaw a countywide crime lab that was caught mishandling DNA evidence and employing at least one person who was investigated for tampering with drug evidence. Satz’s office closed its investigation into that employee without alerting the public.

“We are requesting that you make changes in your office’s procedures to correct institutional failures impacting the fair administration of justice in our community,” the letter stated. (In response, a spokesperson for Satz’s office in 2019 dismissed the criticisms as “recycled old complaints from the Public Defender’s Office that we have responded to in the past” and added that the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices simply have “differences of opinion regarding public safety.”)

Satz has also been criticized for allowing police brutality to flourish under his watch. During Black Lives Matter marches earlier this year, protesters routinely chanted the name of Howard Bowe, an unarmed man who was killed by Hallandale Beach police officers in 2014. Satz, however, never charged any of the officers involved. Nor did Satz’s office take action after reporting by The Intercept and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting suggested that Damain Martin, a 16-year-old boy who drowned in a Broward County canal last year, was shot with a Taser by a Sunrise police officer.

The race to replace Satz is crowded. Satz himself has endorsed Sarahnell Murphy, a current assistant attorney in his office. Former public defender and ex-Coconut Creek Mayor Joshua Rydell leads the pack in fundraising by a significant margin and has been endorsed by a major local police union, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association. 

All of the candidates have indicated in media interviews and their online platforms that they would be less carceral than Satz, but what that would mean in practice varies widely. The Political Report contacted all eight Democratic candidates, but only Kimok and Justin McCormack provided responses to a set of policy questions. 

McCormack, who says on his website that he wants to “stop the revolving door of mass incarceration” and expand pretrial diversion programs, told the Political Report that he  does “not want to make life even more difficult for poor people by saddling them with unnecessary criminal charges.” He also says he would not seek cash bail for nonviolent offenses. 

McCormack declined to take a stand on legalizing or decriminalizing sex work, but he told the Political Report that “our prosecutorial resources would be better utilized reducing the harms associated with sex work, including trafficking, underage workers, and violence.” 

Murphy, the candidate endorsed by Satz, has highlighted her prosecutorial experience, and has proposed few specific policy changes or reforms outside of boosting funding to diversionary programs already in place at Satz’s office and focusing on diversifying staff. 

Harold Pryor, a former prosecutor and current defense attorney, has scored endorsements from many of South Florida’s Black lawmakers and has promised to “change the system from within.” His website outlines some reform positions, with qualifications, such as ending the use of cash bail “for certain non-violent misdemeanor offenses and other non-violent offenses.” He also says he will “eliminate adjudications for Misdemeanor Traffic Offenses and other offenses that are remnants of poverty,” though he did not respond to the Political Report’s question on exactly how he would handle offenses that are related to poverty.

Rydell, the fundraising leader, promises on his website to tackle “mass incarceration,” but his proposals remain comparatively vague, including promises to “reevaluate who we send to jail and why” and “launch an initiative to start examining the costs and benefits for incarceration terms.” He did not reply to the Political Report’s more specific queries. His website says he would not use cash bail for nonviolent offenses, and he would end incarceration over technical parole violations. 

Kimok, by contrast, has outlined the most detailed platform. He pointed the Political Report toward a 44-page proposal explaining how he would handle everything from misdemeanor justice, to juvenile justice, to police misconduct and immigration-related offenses. 

He says he would decline to prosecute a range of offenses, a strategy used by other prosecutors intent on shrinking the scope of the criminal legal system. He says, for example, that he will not prosecute marijuana possession and behaviors related to consensual sex work. 

Many Florida politicians have used the specter of sex trafficking to crack down on consensual sex work—lawmakers created a “Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database” that was severely criticized by sex worker advocates last year—but Kimok instead told the Political Report he doesn’t “believe criminal justice should be involved in those types of cases at all.”

He also says he will not prosecute cases of loitering, trespassing, and panhandling, which are often associated with poverty and homelessness. His promise not to prosecute panhandling is remarkable in Broward County, since the Democrat-dominated Fort Lauderdale city government regularly makes national headlines for repeated crackdowns on homeless encampments. In 2014, for example, the city banned  feeding homeless people and then arrested a 90-year-old activist for distributing food.

When it comes to drugs other than marijuana, Kimok says he will keep drug possession cases within the criminal legal system, but steer them toward treatment or diversion programs. This is a more cautious approach than some other progressives who have won recent elections. In Austin, Texas, the likely next district attorney has pledged to not prosecute any cases of drug possession or sale under one gram, for instance. 

Kimok says he opposes cash bail, and the use of financial conditions for pretrial release, for any offense—a position that is less qualified than his opponents’. And he promised to never direct-file any minor into adult court. Under Florida’s direct file statute, prosecutors can unilaterally decide to charge youth as adults. Because of this unchecked power, Florida sends more youth through the adult court system than any other state. Kimok has said a grand jury should be involved if a minor is to be charged as an adult. 

In addition to Sanders’s endorsement, Kimok has earned support from some of Florida’s prominent activist organizations, including Dream Defenders, a civil rights organization that has led many of the state’s marches during the George Floyd uprisings.

Kimok told the Political Report that although his platform may seem radical now, he’s hoping to start remaking the criminal legal system so that his children can live in a drastically different world.

“My son is biracial,” he said. “I just was scared to death to wake up 10 years from now, with him being a teenager, and see us kind of still live in this same criminal legal system we have now.”

The other Democratic candidates are James Lewis, who has promised to put the “ass[es]” of heroin and fentanyl sellers “in jail,” Teresa Fanning-Williams, and David Cannady. All are current and former prosecutors. The Democratic nominee will face Republican Gregg Rossman and independent Sheila Alu in November—and will be heavily favored in a county where Donald Trump received less than  a third of the vote in 2016.

Explore our coverage of other elections for prosecutor nationwide.