Israel Releases Hundreds of Prisoners Due to Prison Overcrowding

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File photo: Israeli prisoner ahead of his release.
File photo: Israeli prisoner ahead of his release.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel granted early release to 430 prisoners on Wednesday, including the alleged head of organized crime in the country's south, after failing to meet a High Court of Justice deadline for expanding the living space in its overcrowded prisons.

About 80 of the prisoners who were released on Wednesday were convicted of domestic violence and 10 were sex offenders. Many had not undergone or not completed rehabilitation programs.

In 2017, the High Court criticized the conditions of prisoners and detainees in Israel’s prisons, and ordered the state to expand living space from 3 square meters to 4.5 square meters. The Israel Prison Service was not able to meet this goal, and therefore it granted early release to prisoners serving sentences up to four years, which reduced the prison population to under 14,000.

Some of the prisoners released on Wednesday were to have been released at the beginning of the month, but this was not possible due to delays in the establishment of the Knesset committees. The emergency regulation defining maximum occupancy in the prisons was to have been extended by the Knesset Interior Committee, but since it was not established, the regulation expired at the beginning of the month. In light of this, two weeks ago Public Security Minster Omer Bar-Lev signed an order approving the release of the prisoners. The order was approved by the Knesset Interior Ministry on Tuesday.

The prisoners released early due to overcrowding had completed at least half of their sentence, and were to be released within a few weeks or months in any case. Other than prisoners convicted of domestic violence and of sex offenses, 80 of those released had committed security offenses. The rest of the prisoners released were serving time for other offenses, such as drug- or property-related crimes.

The fact that authorities released the prisoners without taking into consideration the type of offense committed was subject to criticism, made harsher because many of them had not completed rehabilitation programs in prison. As a result, the Public Security Ministry is considering restricting early release for prisoners convicted of serious crimes, so that they would be released a maximum of only a few weeks ahead of the completion of their sentence. This group includes sex offenders, those convicted of domestic violence, and other offenses including injuring a minor or helpless individual, as well as hate crimes.

Among the prisoners released on Wednesday was Benny Shlomo, considered the head of organized crime in the south. Shlomo was serving 23 months for extortion using threats, and the police are concerned that his release will result in an uptick in violence in the south.

In June 2017, the High Court ruled that prison conditions infringed on prisoners’ right to dignity. About a year after the ruling, the state asked to delay its implementation until 2027. The High Court sharply criticized the request and said: “The High Court ruling to increase space for prisoners is not a recommendation.” However, the court agreed to delay implementation of the ruling until May 2020. Then, in August 2020, the state requested another extension of three years, until December 2023. The court decided to grant an extension until December 2022.

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