Israeli Youth Offenders of Ethiopian Descent Three Times More Likely to Go to Prison

Non-Ethiopian Jews and Arabs are more likely to be recommended treatment by the probation service, report shows.

Police detain an Israeli of Ethiopian descent during a demonstration against police brutality, July 4, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

Almost 90 percent of young Israeli offenders of Ethiopian descent are sentenced to prison – three times the percentage for non-immigrant Jewish minors and almost twice the percentage for Israeli Arab minors, the Public Defender’s Office said Tuesday.

A report on the issue, with figures as of 2015, was presented by the Council for the Welfare of the Child at a conference at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva.

According to the report, the probation service makes different recommendations to the courts based on ethnicity. For youth offenders from non-immigrant Jewish families, it recommends treatment 74 percent of the time. For the Israeli Arab community and the Ethiopian Israeli community, these numbers are 55 percent and 19 percent respectively.

“We must ask ourselves why we’ve reached the stage where Israel admits openly that there’s discrimination and racism at its institutions toward the community of Israelis of Ethiopian descent,” said Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor, who has headed a committee to root out racism against Ethiopian Israelis. “We must ask why young people encounter the law enforcement and judicial systems more than the treatment system.”

Last week this panel, which was established after the protests by Ethiopian Israelis in 2015, submitted a report to President Reuven Rivlin. The document, five months in preparation, offered 53 recommendations to government ministries and state agencies to fight racism against Ethiopian Israelis. A key one was to equip police with body cameras and limit their use of stun guns.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, three-quarters of the offenses by Ethiopian Israeli teens involve robbery and 25 percent involve violence.

“The distribution of the offenses reveals that zero percent of youth offenses are sex offenses, arson or security offenses; they’re only offenses involving robbery and violence,” said Rachel Danieli, the public defender official responsible for youth offenders.

For non-Ethiopian youths, including the Arab community, these numbers are 29 percent for security offenses, 16 percent for robbery, 28 percent for sex offenses, 21 percent for violence and 4 percent for arson.

“When people ask why so many young Ethiopians are sent to prison, the answer is to be found in the recommendations by probation officers,” Danieli said. “In youth courts the most important thing is rehabilitation and treatment. When treatment doesn’t succeed and officials think there’s no reason to try, the recommendation is negative,” she added, meaning a prison sentence rather than treatment.

Danieli said it was “insane” that probation officers recommended treatment for so many non-Ethiopian youth and so few of Ethiopian background.

“Judges who receive such a negative recommendation rule for prison,” Daniel said. “There’s also a gap between Arab origin and Ethiopian origin – and I have no answers.”

D., 14, robbed an elderly woman about six months ago. “You’re white, I hate you, I hate whites,” he told her. Then he punched her, kicked her and spat at her. A week ago, he was sentenced to a year in prison.

He and his family emigrated from Ethiopia eight years ago and barely speak Hebrew. D. refused rehabilitative treatment and wouldn’t cooperate with the social worker.

Daniel, the lawyer, said it’s not uncommon for teens like D. to refuse treatment, “because they don’t trust the system.”

In contrast, Y., who isn’t of Ethiopian origin, received no jail time for stealing 10,000 shekels ($2,600) worth of jewelry from a jewelry store at age 16, mainly because he did agree to treatment.