With No Alternatives, Israel Keeps Young Offenders With Mental Health Problems in Jail

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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The Dimona facility where the new wing for at-risk youth is set to be erected. The city opposes the plans.
The Dimona facility where the new wing for at-risk youth is set to be erected. The city opposes the plans.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Y., a 16-year-old from Bnei Brak, suffers from mental health and behavioral problems. As a child, he endured violence at home and at age 8 he was taken away from his parents. Last January, he was arrested after he took part in rioting that broke out in the city over coronavirus restrictions. He was indicted for torching a bus and assaulting the driver.

After several days in jail, prosecutors asked that he be released to an institution that could deal with his complicated situation. But in reality, no such facility exists; instead, Y. was sent to a variety of institutions, all of which he escaped. After he assaulted a counselor at one of them, he was sent back to jail, where he has remained for the last three months.

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Despite repeated promises by the Social Services Ministry, Israel still does not have a program to care for people like Y., at risk-youth with a history of abuse, mental health issues and cognitive problems. Law enforcement and welfare officials agree there’s an urgent need to establish such a program: in its absence, minors with serious mental health issues find themselves at centers unequipped to address their needs – or in prison. There, they often behave violently and get slapped with new criminal charges. Instead of getting treatment, their condition is worsened and the window of opportunity to integrate into society quickly closes, Justice Ministry sources told Haaretz.

“What does he learn in jail? His friends tell him – you don’t need to go to a facility, make a deal,” Y.’s lawyer, Shmuel Fleishman told the court hearing his case. He has sought to have his client go to a yeshiva instead of prison.

But Y. isn’t interested. “I’ll be sentenced and that’s it. At first, I wanted to be in some kind of program, but I don’t anymore – I changed my mind,” Y. told the court.

Ofek Prison. Instead of being rehabilitated, youthful offenders rack up new charges.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

M., a minor with mental health problems, was arrested 18 months ago after he assaulted his parents. At first, his parents didn’t want to file a police complaint but in the end decided to do so in the hope that the legal process would place their son in an appropriate facility.

Instead, the boy was held in Ofek Prison for several months. When he was removed to a Youth Sponsorship facility, he assaulted one of the counselors and a criminal case was opened against him. He was returned to jail and his lawyer reached a plea bargain whereby he served just six months time.

“The state turned a minor that needed psychiatric help into a criminal,” his lawyer told Haaretz.

Southern standoff

In Israel, where the number of specialized programs for at-risk youth is already small, teens with mental health and cognitive problems fall between the cracks. In an unusual case of one part of the government suing another, the Justice Ministry’s legal aid branch filed a lawsuit with the High Court of Justice in 2017 in the name of minors awaiting placement in Youth Sponsorship facilities. In its response earlier this year, the Social Services Ministry said it planned to create a dedicated wing at a facility for the disabled near Dimona in southern Israel, which would be capable of housing 12 teens – including those with severe mental issues. But it added that until the state budget is passed, the ministry doesn’t have the funds to allocate for the new program.

But the city opposes construction of the new wing. A source in the municipality told Haaretz that officials opposed a facility that resembled a prison at such a high-profile location – according to the construction plans, the new wing would have to be surrounded with a five-meter high wall. For now, the city engineers and legal adviser have refused to approve the plan.

Despite the city’s opposition and the funding issues, the ministry says that construction on the new wing has already started. The plans don’t require city approval, officials at the ministry said, and promised that the wing will be completed next year.

Social Services Minister Meir CohenCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Last Thursday, Social Services Minister Meir Cohen, who was formerly mayor of Dimona, met with the current mayor to discuss the issue, according to a statement released by the municipality. “The mayor promised the minister that in the coming weeks he would call a meeting of city experts to discuss the application [for the new wing] and review all its implications,” the city said.

The Social Services Ministry said the Dimona facility is the first part of a multi-year program that will cost tens of millions of shekels and to which it is fully committed.

As to Y., the ministry termed the story “a complicated case.”

“As part of the treatment, the boy was placed in an out-of-home setting, but it was unsuccessful. The probation service presented to the court a number of alternatives to out-of-home settings that suit the boy’s needs and will continue to accompany him closely until an optimal solution is found,” the ministry said.

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