Israeli Army Lawyers Move to Curb 'Excessive' Jailing of Soldiers

The attorneys say that because the military justice system has no mechanism for evaluating defendants’ personal circumstances, soldiers are sent to jail too often and for too long

A military courtroom in Tel Aviv, 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

In a rare move, military defense attorneys plan to petition the High Court of Justice against the army itself, in an effort to curb what they consider the excessive jailing of soldiers.

The petition will ask the court to order that soldiers be evaluated by a social worker before they are sentenced in a military court. Such an evaluation, which examines the defendant’s personal circumstances and emotional condition, can lead to lighter sentences and/or rehabilitation programs.

As a necessary first step toward filing their petition, the attorneys sent a letter to both the attorney general and the military advocate general outlining their concerns.

The attorneys said that because the military justice system includes no mechanism for evaluating soldiers’ personal circumstances, soldiers are sent to jail more often and receive longer sentences than would otherwise be the case. As a result, the basic rights of thousands of soldiers are violated every year, the attorneys said.

Most soldiers are jailed for disciplinary problems, being absent without leave and using soft drugs – crimes that either don’t exist or are rarely enforced in the civilian justice system.

In their letter, the attorneys demanded that the army begin evaluating indicted soldiers immediately, and warned that if this demand isn’t met within 45 days, the attorneys will petition the court.

The army has been considering instituting such evaluations since 2013, but no decision has been made and there is no sign of one coming soon. Still, the defense attorneys say that both military prosecutors and senior officers agree that evaluations should be part of the process.

The Social Affairs Ministry’s evaluation service, which conducts such evaluations for the civilian courts, says it doesn’t have the capacity to conduct evaluations for the military justice system as well. That raises the question of who would conduct such evaluations for soldiers, and who would pay for it.

One possibility is that an army unit responsible for helping imprisoned soldiers would take on the job.

According to the military prosecution, some 4,700 indictments were filed against soldiers last year. Of these, 57 percent were for being absent without leave, and 22 percent were for traffic offenses. Of the rest, roughly 75 percent were for drug offenses.