The tragic story of Josh Stein: A sick tortoise, an urge to help and a fatal trip through Broward’s Felony Mental Health Court

Josh Stein, a mentally troubled man of 38, died of an apparent accidental drug overdose the day after Christmas.  Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, says Stein’s death can be traced to anxiety and stress caused by “cattle car justice” meted out in Broward’s Felony Mental Health Court. In a letter last week to Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, Finkelstein chronicled Stein’s journey through the system after his burglary arrest in July 2013 for an ill advised taking, without permission, of a sickly red-footed tortoise that Stein wanted to nurse back to health. Finkelstein, who helped establish the specialized court to protect the mentally disabled in 2003, now says Felony Mental Health Court is a failure that must be shut down. 

Josh Stein

Josh Stein

Dear Chief Judge Weinstein,

Josh Stein is dead. A 38-year-old man has been forever silenced. His mother and father will never again see his smile, hear his laugh or hold and hug him. Their only son is lost forever. Now they are left with only pictures and memories.

He died a victim of Broward County’s Felony Mental Health Court’s callous, misguided treatment of the mentally ill.

As has occurred so many times, the existence of mental health court justified and perpetuated the prosecution of this mentally ill man by creating the illusion of “treatment.” His interactions with the court system led to a downward spiral. Josh died on December 26, 2014, after having been virtually strangled by the court system.

It is important for you to know who Josh Stein was. He was a 38-year-old man with an IQ of 160. He was kind hearted. He was a loving son and brother. He loved animals, especial l y tortoises. He cared for several of them in his back yard turtle sanctuary. Josh was also mentally ill. He suffered from bi-polar and anxiety disorder. These disorders combined with his intelligence sometimes made Josh argumentative, frustrating those without patience, training or insight. In 2011, Josh successfull y beat a prescription opiate addiction by admitting himself for inpatient treatment.

In Jul y 2013, Josh was charged with burglary and grand theft for allegedly taking a sickly and d ying red footed tortoise from the South Florida Wildlife Center a year earlier. He didn’t take it to harm it or sell it but rather to nurse it back to health as he felt onl y he could. He did eventually return the tortoise in good health. He was found incompetent to proceed and his case was transferred to Felony Mental Health Court Court. According to his family, the stress of the prosecution worsened his anxiety and fragile mental health and caused Josh to relapse.

From left to right are Josh's father, Mitch Stein, sister Megan Stein, Josh, and his mother, Kathy Stein.

From left to right are Josh’s father, Mitch Stein, sister Megan Stein, Josh, and his mother, Kathy Stein.

Initially, Josh was a willing participant in Mental Health Court. He felt lucky to have the support of his parents, Mitch and Cathy Stein as well as his sister Megan Steinberg, a licensed Florida family therapist. At first, his parents and sister believed that Josh would be able to get the mental health treatment he needed under the supervision of those they assumed were compassionate and caring mental health professionals. Their enthusiasm was soon tempered by Josh’s treatment at the hands of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Pre-trial Release Division, his case manager from Archways [a nonprofit social services provider] and the Felony Mental Health Court. That treatment greatly exacerbated his bi-polar and anxiety disorder, causing him to spiral downwards.

In less than ten months in Felony Mental Health Court, Josh, who had never been arrested for a felony before, was required to appear before Judge [Mark] Speiser at least nine times. This was in addition to his weekly competency training classes, medication management appointments, private psychiatrist appointments and his pretrial release requirements. His family firmly believes that each one of these requirements increased Josh’s anxiety and fear and withdrawal. Each one of these court appearances left Josh debilitated due to the fear and anxiety they generated within him. He felt harassed by those who were supposed to help him and was afraid he would be sent to jail.

When his father tried to address these issues with the Court on March 17, 2014 Judge Speiser would not let him speak. The state and the judge were too focused on moving Josh’s case. Judge Speiser focused not on the real man before him but rather on getting this incompetent person competent so he could plead to probation and eventually be sent to prison for violating conditions he did not have the capacity to comply with. Judge Speiser had no interest in helping or healing Josh. Mental Health Court has become and administrative and bureaucratic tool to CYA.

Josh’s pretrial release requirements were particularly onerous. Josh was required to wear an ankle monitor and was not allowed to leave his home. Pretrial refused him permission to attend synagogue at Temple Kol Ami in Plantation in violation of his First Amendment right of freedom of religion. They would not permit him to attend his court mandated Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Furthermore they interfered with his attempts to gain employment. He agonized over every court imposed condition and every court appearance. The anxiety caused by his overly restrictive house arrest ultimately led him to self-medicate with opiates and benzoids. As a result of all the conditions imposed by Judge Speiser and the indifferent enforcement and monitoring by pre-trial, Josh was left to sit on his couch, alone, stewing in his own mental illness, without any hope of healing his psychic wounds.

Josh’s father, mother and sister place the blame for his death squarely on Broward’s Felony Mental Health Court and Judge Speiser in particular. The court completely ignored therapeutic jurisprudence principles and instead imposed absurd and onerous release requirements on someone whose mental illness was exacerbated by those overly restrictive release requirements. Competent defendants charged with third degree felonies who have extensive ties to the community and no felony criminal history are not subject to the type of release conditions that were imposed on Josh. Such conditions are not imposed on those without a mental illness or intellectual disability. Competent defendants are not placed on both conditional release and pre-trial release. Furthermore, Sheriffs office pretrial personnel have little or no training in dealing with the mentally ill. Their supervision of mental health clients, as evidenced by their treatment of Josh, is inappropriate and borders on negligence. Josh was 38 years old and had never been convicted of anything. He was here, enduring all these restrictions because he tried to save a tortoise. What in the world was Judge Speiser and this court doing?

Josh’s family is not vindictive. However, they are certain that the structure and implementation of the mental health court concept in Broward County’s Felony Mental Health Court failed Josh and did nothing more than intensify his pain and anguish. On behalf of his grieving family, I am demanding you, as chief judge, end the segregation and discrimination against the mentally ill and intellectually disabled by immediately discontinuing Felony Mental Health Court. This court, although initially created as a way to help the disabled, does nothing more than streamline the mentally ill and disabled through the system in what has become cattle car justice. This court not only failed Josh, it had a hand in killing him and continues to fail this very vulnerable population.


Howard Finkelstein
Public Defender
cc: Broward County Commission

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