Israeli Panel Calls for Shorter Jail Terms, Improved Rehab for Offenders

Recommendations represent a change in approach on incarceration and assert that stiffer sentencing does not lead to lower rates of crime.

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Inmates at an Israeli prison in April 2014.Credit: David Bachar

A state-appointed committee on criminal sentencing headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner on Monday recommended less harsh punishment of criminals, reducing long prison terms and considering alternatives to prison, such as community service.

After four years of deliberations, the panel on Monday completed its report, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, and submitted it to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. The committee was established in 2011 by then-Justice Minster Yaakov Neeman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following public criticism of what was seen as overly lenient criminal sentencing. In the end, however, the panel, which included representatives from law enforcement and academia, argued against stiffer criminal penalties.

The recommendations represent a change in approach on incarceration and assert that stiffer sentencing does not lead to lower rates of crime. “While a higher prospect of being caught does increase deterrence, in most cases stiffer punishment does not clearly have the same effect,” the report states. “In light of this, there is no point in attempting to promote deterrence through broader use of imprisonment or longer prison sentences.” On the other hand, the report said rehabilitation within the community, through community or public service and probation, would be expected “to produce better results than wider use of imprisonment.”

“The prospects that a former prisoner would again commit crimes is greater than the prospects [of repeat offenses on the part of] an offender who was given a punishment outside of the prison walls,” the report claimed, noting also that incarcerating a convict also costs the state tens of thousands of shekels a month on average. Rehabilitation in the community is less expensive and more efficient, the committee asserted.

Most convicts released from prison in any given year serve no more than a year, the report states. It recommends that such relatively short prison terms be replaced by community service. As it currently stands, the law allows the alternative of community service only for defendants sentenced to less than six months in jail. The panel is recommending that this be expanded at least to include prisoners sentenced to nine-month jail terms.

“In comparison with other Western countries, punishments provided by [Israel’s] sentencing law are rather strict,” the panel wrote, recommending that the legislature “adapt [the punishment] to the seriousness of the offense and not try to achieve deterrence through a change in the maximum penalty associated with it.”

The panel pointed specifically to the difficulty in promoting deterrence and rehabilitation through prison sentences, the high cost of incarceration and the influence of extended imprisonment on repeat criminal activity. It also said it is difficult to draft legislation on maximum or minimum sentencing that adapts the sentence to the degree of danger the defendant poses. “Longer periods of imprisonment set by law do not further the fight against crime and are therefore not justified as a means of achieving this goal.”

The panel recommended that before the government considers changes in sentencing, it should be provided information on customary sentences for specific crimes and the estimated cost to the state of carrying them out.

Among the issues the panel explored was minimum sentences for certain crimes, a subject that has been in the public eye particularly since the beginning of the current wave of terrorism. Minimum sentencing should be avoided, the committee suggested. The panel also claimed there are deficiencies at the prisoner rehabilitation authority, saying that many prisoners were not getting the services they needed.

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