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The High Court ruling in June did not differentiate between criminal and so-called security prisoners – Palestinians arrested or jailed for terror-related activities – and even explicitly mentioned greater overcrowding problems for the latter group in Israel's prisons.
The Israeli minister in charge of prisons, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, is leading the move to differentiate between the two groups.
Moreover, he said that because Palestinian security prisoners are not Israeli citizens and will not be returning to Israeli society at the end of their prison terms, they should not be entitled to rehabilitation programs while serving their sentences.
The High Court ruling stated that Israeli prisons “aren’t fit for human habitation” and that therefore the state must give prisoners more cell space.
The current law grants each inmate 3 square meters (32 square feet), compared to a European average of 8.8 square meters.
Following a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Academic Center for Law and Business in Ramat Gan, the High Court ordered this be increased to 4 square meters within a year and 4.5 square meters within 18 months.
To meet the court’s requirements while maintaining the existing number of prisoners, the Public Security Ministry has concluded that it would need to build four new prisons. This is financially unfeasible and, in any case, can’t be done within the time frame the court dictated.
Instead, Erdan is seeking to reduce the prison population. One of his potential solutions would involve allowing criminals to be eligible for parole after serving only half of their sentence, instead of the current two-thirds.
But Erdan also wants to exempt security prisoners from the minimum space requirement. If legislation differentiating between criminal and security prisoners does pass, it will make things far easier for the Israel Prison Service - because overcrowding for regular prisoners is much less than for security prisoners.
Erdan also wants to increase the number of people sentenced to community service rather than prison terms. Currently, only a sentence of six months or less can be served through community service; Erdan wants to raise this limit to nine months.
Both steps were proposed two years ago by a public committee on penal code reform headed by former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner. The committee argued that stiffer sentences rarely have a deterrent effect, so it makes no sense to seek more or longer prison sentences.
But some experts oppose lengthening the maximum term for community service, noting that since people can’t hold down paying jobs while doing such service, long stints of community service could drive people back into crime simply in order to support themselves.
Moreover, the State Prosecutor’s Office has previously opposed earlier parole. But Erdan said his proposals are coordinated with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
The Public Defender’s Office also welcomed the proposals.
One issue raised in the Dorner report that Erdan didn’t address is holding defendants without bail during their trials. This also increases the prison population, and many jurists say that far too many defendants are denied bail.
Israel currently has about 12,000 criminal prisoners and another 6,000 security prisoners.