New Community Courts in Israel Emphasize Rehabilitation, Not Punishment

Two years in to new trend of community court, it is not clear whether the new system has reduced recidivism

Alon Afenjar was arrested for heroin possession but a community court sent him to rehab instead of jail
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Around two years ago, Alon Afenjar of Be’er Sheva was arrested for possession of less than half a gram of heroin. He wasn’t surprised; he knew that one day he would be caught. But instead of being given a prison sentence, Afenjar was placed in a drug rehabilitation program. Instead of continuing to use narcotics, he opened a legitimate business.

Afenjar, 48, is one of 33 people Israelis to have successfully completed a rehabilitation program imposed by a community court. Two years after the first such court was opened in Be’er Sheva — a second began operating in Ramle some months later — a third community court is slated to open in Tel Aviv before the end of May. Afenjar worked for Israel Electric Corporation until 2000. That year he was charged with several counts of burglary and spent a number of months in jail. Eight years later, he was acquitted of most of the charges, but for Afenjar it was too late. “I started using drugs in jail,” he says.

After his arrest for possession, Afenjar went through withdrawal. His lawyer, Orit Luzon, suggested that he ask to have his case moved to the new community-court system. Community courts emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, and in order to have one’s case heard in one, the accused must be willing to undergo rehabilitation. A range of sentencing options is determined at the outset, with the lightest being no prison time if the rehab program is completed. Those who drop out receive harsher sentences.

Afenjar says he chose the community route not in order to get a lighter sentence — the punishment for possessing under half a gram of heroin is usually not excessive — but in order to go to rehab. Now, more than a year later, he operates a home laboratory for recycling electronic waste, after learning chemistry over the internet. He says that at first he was sceptical, “but then I saw that people were coming to my house, like the probation officer who came and talked to me. The court took an interest in my hobbies, in what I was doing, it tried to find me employment and interviews, helping me return to life, to society, to recover everything I’d lost.”

The community courts in Be’er Sheva and Ramle have handled a total of 202 people; 33 have completed the process successfully and an additional 17 are close to finishing. There are 112 people in various stages of the process, while 40 have dropped out. Fifteen participants have reoffended in the course of the program or afterward. Each participant gets an individualized program but everyone must report to the community court twice a month for a progress review.

One of the founders of the community courts in Israel is Daniella Beinisch of JDC Ashalim Israel. She believes the dropouts are an expression of the program’s growing pains, such as mistakes made in screening and insufficient opportunities for rehabilitation.

The cases brought to community courts involve light to moderate crimes such as drug, fraud or property offenses, intimidation and violence, including within the home.

Efraim Maimouni, 57, struggles with violence and admits having assaulted female partners on more than one occasion. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his military service that went untreated, even after he accumulated a criminal record. “I witnessed many atrocities and it keeps coming back,” Maimouni says. “I’m kind of aggressive, but it’s unintentional.” He says he tried to lead a normal life — work, family, a mortgage — until he was removed from the family due to his violence.

After contact with his family was severed, the road to drug abuse was a short one. After nearly 20 years of drug addiction, Maimouni has been clean for 13 years. He says that he cannot promise that he will never use drugs or be violent ever again, but he would be ashamed if he fails. “I was reached too late,” he says, but he tries to be optimistic. After four months in an outpatient program for male perpetrators of domestic violence, he was given probation. Maimouni’s personal debt was also addressed as part of his rehabilitation.

“In a regular court you’re not heard,” he says. “They start by declaring you guilty. At the community court they listen to me and help me. I didn’t believe the authorities after fighting them for 40 years. Now I no longer fight. I tell them things and they help me in everything. It gave me back my life.”

The main goal of the community courts is to prevent recidivism. It’s hard to assess the success rate so far. Beinisch says that if 30 to 50 percent of participants meet the program’s goals that will be a success, since rehab programs usually have a 10 percent success rate.

Surprisingly perhaps, it isn’t easy to find candidates for the program. People who have served time in prison often prefer to remain there rather than undertake an arduous rehabilitation process. As more public defenders learn about the program’s benefits, finding participants may become easier.

There are failures, too. A 23-year-old woman who did not want her name published dropped out of the program after a year. She was suspected of involvement in an armed robbery when she was 15, and years later she and her husband assaulted each other.

“I have a pattern of violence that I tried to treat as part of the program, but it didn’t succeed,” she says. In the end, she failed even to reach the second phase of her rehab program. “I had the will, but it was hard. I tend toward depression and it’s hard for me to pick myself up. They tried to help me in all sorts of ways but eventually I left the program, I didn’t want people to have any expectations from me.” Nevertheless, she found a job and has remained employed. She did not receive a sentence, something she says probably would have happened in the criminal court system.

All of the partners to the program — prosecutors, defense attorneys and the prosecution division of the Israel Police — agree that in order for the community courts to succeed, they must forge a new model of cooperation. The process has already begun, in part by looking into expanding the number and type of offenses that are eligible while at the same time protecting the public interest.