Two-thirds of all Israeli defendants sentenced to jail last year received prison terms of six months or less, according to a document submitted by the police to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
In 2009, 11,140 defendants were sentenced to terms of up to six months, while only 2,543 were sentenced to community service - the most likely alternative to a sentence of that length.
Among people convicted of either fraud or disturbing the peace, 85 percent were sentenced to six months or less, the document said. For those convicted of bodily injury, the rate was 54 percent; for property crimes, it was 45 percent.
The document was submitted to back the police's position in a fierce controversy that has raged in the committee over the last few weeks.
The panel is preparing a government bill for final reading that would limit judges' discretion in sentencing by setting "default sentences" (usually a range ) for various crimes. Judges would be able to deviate from the standard, but only if the case involved exceptional circumstances.
One of the bill's main goals is to reduce the problem of different judges giving wildly different sentences for the same crime, even when the circumstances do not differ materially.
One question that arose during the discussions was whether for certain crimes, judges should be instructed to prefer sentences that do not involve jail time. This idea is supported by committee chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), the Public Defender's Office, the Israel Bar Association and a long list of academics. But the police are adamantly opposed.
The police argue that in any case, most prison sentences are short. The real problem, they said, is not excessive stringency, but excessive leniency: Courts often impose very short sentences even for serious crimes.
Police fear that instructing judges to prefer alternatives to prison would result in sentences becoming even more lenient, with judges coming to view jail time as the exception rather than the rule.
"Short prison terms are an important sentencing option in Israel," a police legal team wrote in the document. "Adding the article in question to the law would significantly reduce the use of such sentences."
That is problematic, the authors argued, because jail sentences, even short ones, are often "the optimal way of deterring perpetrators who maintain normative lifestyles in all other aspects of their lives."
But Dr. Yoav Sapir, the deputy head of the Public Defender's Office, disagrees. He told the panel that from 1996 to 2005, the proportion of convicts sentenced to jail time rose by 44 percent. Today, the proportion of the population in prison in Israel is one of the highest in the Western world, he said - and his office fears that the bill's overall effect would be to increase this proportion.
"Everyplace in the world, experience shows that limiting judicial discretion has led to dramatically stiffer sentences," Sapir said.
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