A proposal to standardize prison sentences is expected to generate stormy debate in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee today, with the Public Defender's Office condemning the adoption of what it calls a "price list" that will encourage tougher sentences.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz will attend the meeting to lend support for the plan, which passed its first reading in the Knesset in 2006 and is now due for second and third readings.

The bill aims to minimize the differences in the sentences meted out by different judges, by mandating establishment of specific sentences for certain offenses. The courts would still have the discretion to alter the severity of the punishment, depending on the circumstances. The bill provides sentencing guidelines and a list of mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

"It's hard to believe that in the State of Isrel, after 60 years, the legislature has not yet bothered to define the guiding principles of punishment, or the mitigating and aggravating circumstances for sentencing, or to give the judge even minimal guidance in sentencing," Mazuz said in July 2006, when the bill was last discussed.

"The most important goal is to prevent inconsistency and inequality in sentencing," he added. "You don't need to conduct field research to know that there are gaps, sometimes very large ones, in the sentences handed out in the various courts ... for similar offenses in similar circumstances. Sometimes the differences are very significant."

Dana Pugach, director of the Noga Legal Center for Victims of Crime, wrote the law and justice committee that such a law would help increase public confidence in the justice system.

However, the Public Defender's Office opposes the legislation, and claims it would push judges to give harsher sentences, especially jail time. In a statement submitted to the committee, the agency also said the bill would "damage fundamental equality and social justice."

"Setting a point of departure for punishments will in effect create a strict 'punishment price list,' despite the fact that there is a limited possibility of deviating from the punishments," the statement said. "Experience shows that when you set points of departure for punishment, the convenient path for the judges is to give the suggested sentence. This removes from them the responsibility for setting punishment, and makes them immune to public criticism or appeals."

The Israeli penal code currently sets a maximum sentence for most offenses and a minimum for others, including sex offenses, although the courts can circumvent the minimum sentence in exceptional circumstances. However, the law does not set out guidelines for judges as to the most suitable punishment. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has not really addressed the issue either.

At the Justice Ministry's request, Prof. Ruth Kanai and Dr. Oren Gazal-Eyal have submitted a document to the committee that outlines sentences for robbery and aggravated robbery, and for providing shelter, transportation and employment to illegal residents.