Disabilities Almost Landed Convicts in Jail Instead of Community Service

Though prison service insists it makes every effort to find placements for those sentenced to community service, for some it's just not possible.

 Accused in court (Illustration).
Eyal Warshavsky

Two convicts with disabilities were initially sentenced to jail rather than community service solely because of their medical condition, in defiance of both a Supreme Court ruling and Knesset legislation, according to records disclosed Sunday.

In both cases, the office in charge of community service told the court the convict was physically incapable of performing community service, and should therefore be jailed instead. But in both cases, courts later overturned this decision on appeal and forced the office to place the convicts in community service.

The first case involved a man who suffered a stroke in 2010, leaving him paralyzed on his left side and confined to a wheelchair. Last year, he was convicted of various tax offenses, and the Hadera Magistrate’s Court sentenced him to nine months in jail.

The Public Defender’s Office appealed his sentence to the Haifa District Court, asking that it be shortened enough to make him eligible to serve it via community service, as his physical condition made a jail term untenable.

The court sought an opinion from the office in charge of community service, which responded that the man’s physical condition left him unfit for such service, so sending him to jail was preferable. But the court overruled the office and said the man should serve his sentence through community service anyway.

The second case involved a man convicted of transporting illegal aliens. The man is defined as 100 percent disabled and incapable of functioning without an assistant. About six months ago, a magistrate’s court sentenced him to eight months in jail.

He appealed his sentence to the Lod District Court, which also sought an opinion from the office in charge of community service. The office responded that he was unfit for such service “due to a chronic, degenerative neurological disease that limits him very severely in his daily functioning.” Therefore, the judges agreed to send him to jail, though they shortened his sentence to five months.

Because of the unusual circumstances, the Public Defender’s Office sought and received permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. The court ultimately granted the appeal and ruled that the convict should serve his five months in community service.

Ruling on a similar case in 2010, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote, “On the level of principle, the situation of a person with disabilities should not, in our view, be worse than that of any other person, not only because of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law, but because of the obligation of fairness, which requires no law, but is rooted in basic human values. It’s inconceivable that a person with disabilities should be imprisoned in a situation where another person wouldn’t be imprisoned.”

Last year, courts requested 13,131 opinions from the office in charge of community service. Of these, only 1,835, or about 15 percent, rejected community service as an alternative to prison.

Since the Israel Prison Service doesn’t keep data on the reasons for rejection, it’s not clear how many people were turned down due to a medical condition. But the Prison Service said most people rejected for medical reasons had psychological or psychiatric problems rather than physical ones.

It also said the two cases cited in this report were extreme ones. One of the men in question had been sentenced to a previous term of community service and performed very poorly, it said, while the other was indeed assigned to community service on the court’s order but frequently failed to show up due to his medical condition.

The Prison Service insisted that it makes “maximal efforts” to find placements for everyone sentenced to community service. But such service “is dependent on finding a suitable workplace, subject to the limitations set by the law,” it said in a statement. “In most cases, a suitable solution is found, but there are isolated cases in which medical limitations don’t enable placement.”