Israeli Law Enforcement Being Privatized Without Legal Basis, Warns Civil Rights Group

Policing, prosecution and debt collection are just a few of the state tasks increasingly handled by private firms, according to new report by Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Yaniv Kubovich
Revital Hovel
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Yaniv Kubovich
Revital Hovel

A host of law-enforcement services have gradually been privatized, with no supervision, no public debate on the issue and with no legal basis, according to a new report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

According to the report, entitled “Law and Order, Ltd.” an increasing number of policing activities, prosecutions, incarceration and prisoner rehabilitation services, debt collection and implementation of judgments are being carried out or provided by private entities, in an outsourcing process similar to that occurring in the welfare and health services. While the justification for this is usually increased efficiency and lower costs, the risk, ACRI warns, is conflicts of interest, the undermining of human rights, harm to workers’ rights and the state abandoning responsibility for law enforcement.

One example cited in the report is the numerous policing powers being granted to private security guards and municipal inspectors in an effort to make up for the shortage of police officers. The government is promoting legislation that would give private security guards police-type powers in public places and in schools, such as the right to use force to block entry, remove a person, or detain someone.

The report also notes that dozens of local authorities are operating municipal patrols made up of private, armed security guards that act as police in every way, though there is no legal sanction for this. These guards detain people, set up roadblocks, conduct vehicle searches and even chase down suspects. In some of these locales, the residents are forced to pay for this private security. Since 2008, private security guards have replaced policemen at many sporting events, at which they have broad powers, including the right to use force to detain or remove a person, even if the latter isn’t violent. These powers are granted to security guards who go through a mere three to six days of training.

Prosecution activity is also being privatized; over the past decade, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of private attorneys authorized to handle prosecutorial duties, the report says. These attorneys have been called upon to decide whether to file charges or to close cases – examples include cases involving polluting factories, the violation of labor laws, the employment of foreign workers and the violation of building and planning laws.

The report notes that under such circumstances, a private lawyer could end up conducting a criminal prosecution of a certain business while privately serving as the attorney for its competitor. Moreover, payment to these attorneys is based on the type of legal services rendered, which essentially gives the lawyers an incentive to file indictments and conduct lengthy criminal proceedings.

The report also warns against the outsourcing of debt collection by local authorities to private collection agencies or attorneys, though there is no legal authority to do this. Since these collectors are remunerated by a percentage of what they collect, they have an incentive to use aggressive collection methods. The report states that while the local authorities have indeed succeeded in increasing collections in this fashion, there have also been complaints of collection methods reminiscent of organized crime, including threats, extortion and the use of force. A petition against the privatization of local authority collection of debts is due to be heard by the High Court of Justice in April.

Prison Service eyes halting private intervention

One part of the law enforcement process that’s been partially privatized for years is the prisoner parole and rehabilitation process, the result of state’s haplessness and an ongoing struggle between the Finance Ministry and the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. Now the Israel Prison Service wants to halt this private intervention, although it isn’t clear that the state is prepared to pick up the slack.

The PRA employees are the ones who are meant to draw up the rehabilitation programs for all prisoners who are paroled. Any prisoner who has served two-thirds of his sentence is allowed to approach the parole board and argue for his early release, during which he must present an orderly rehabilitation program that he will adhere to after his release from prison.

The problem is that the PRA’s budget is NIS 14 million a year, the budget of the average Israeli high school. This isn’t nearly enough for the PRA to provide counseling and planning for the thousands of prisoners who are eligible for early release every year.

In recent years, both private attorneys and public defenders who understood that the PRA would not be able to facilitate their clients’ release began involving private professionals, who would develop a program for the prisoner’s rehabilitation and supervision that could be presented to the parole board. According to the Public Defender’s Office, it has managed to secure the early release of 1,500 prisoners annually in this fashion. While the prisoners did not have to pay the public defenders for their time, they still had to pay for the preparation of the rehabilitation plan.

Part of the problem is a bureaucratic tussle being conducted between the treasury, which wants the PRA to become a branch of the Social Affairs Ministry rather than continuing as an independent body. In return, the treasury is prepared to double or even triple the funding allocated to prisoner rehabilitation. But the authority is refusing, claiming that the considerations of the state or the ministry aren’t always congruent with the needs of the prisoners.

On Sunday, meanwhile, the Israel Prison Service suddenly and unilaterally announced that it would no longer allow the intervention of outside professionals in the parole process, although it will approve any process that can be completed by this Friday. The Prison Service announcement said it would later address who will be allowed to meet with prisoners to discuss their release. The Prison Service said it was halting the involvement of private professionals because it led to inequality between prisoners – since only those with money could afford private rehabilitation planning – and it would also give the service time to prepare a list of approved professionals who would get the proper training.

Both public defenders and private attorneys were incensed by the Prison Service decision.

“The order by the IPS grossly interferes with the autonomy of a prisoner or detainees to manage, though his attorney, his legal proceedings as he sees fit, whether we’re talking about a criminal proceeding, an appeal, a petition for early release, a request for a retrial, or any other proceeding,” said attorney Raanan Giladi, who is in charge of the administrative law department in the Public Defender’s Office. “As it is, the individual who confronts the state is in a clearly inferior position… This behavior by the IPS undermines the prisoner’s right to rehabilitation and the public interest in his rehabilitation.”

Dana Kaiser, chairman of the Association of Social and Rehabilitative Criminologists and director of the Center for a New Start, which offers therapeutic and diagnostic services to prisoners, worked for the PRA for 10 years. Today she privately develops rehabilitation programs for prisoners that allow them to apply for early release.

“Even if he violated the law, a person has the right to choose whom to deal with,” Kaiser says. “Whoever has money will get better health, welfare and educational services as well. To force a person to accept the [rehabilitation] program drawn up by the authority is like forcing everyone to take a public defender and not let him have a private lawyer.”

It’s true that people without money aren’t likely to use her services, though she says, “We have pro bono committees for people whose situation doesn’t enable them to pay.”

In its report on the privatization of legal services in Israel that was issued Sunday, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticized the fact that given the underfunding of the PRA, indigent prisoners could be forced to serve out their full sentences while those with money could essentially buy their early release. The ACRI report was written before the sudden Prison Service announcement.

The ACRI report also noted that the monitoring of those under the electronic handcuff program, which is used to keep track of people released to house arrest, had been privatized to a firm called g4s. In cases where installing the electronic handcuff wasn’t possible, g4s has been authorized to make surprise visits to the prisoner, which the report says gives this private company the right to decide whether the prisoner was in violation of his terms of restricted release and could therefore be returned to detention.

A policeman walking out of a police station in Israel. Credit: Moran Maayan

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