Recidivism Costs in Israel Prompt Inmate Rehabilitation Drive

Treasury is allocating unprecedented funds and attention to the problem of former convicts' relapse into criminal behavior.

An inmate in Ayalon Prison.
Daniel Tchetchik

A visitor to the Ayalon Prison in Ramle is struck by the terrible overcrowding and the substandard living conditions of the prisoners. The Israel Prison Service has long wanted to renovate the facility, but nothing has been done because there’s no place to put the 3,500 inmates while the work is under way.

It’s not just the prisoners who pay the price. Crime doesn’t pay for the Israeli taxpayer, who has to carry the costs for every convict who reoffends after being paroled.

A Finance Ministry report estimated the cost of each case of recidivism — including the loss of the individual’s productive labor, the direct cost of the criminal activity and of incarceration — at 3.1 million shekels ($806,000). If Israel could reduce on an annual basis recidivism rates by 1,000 of its 12,000 or so repeat offenders, it would save the state some 3 billion shekels a year.

Prison Service Commissioner Ofra Klinger says the recidivism rate will not drop until the conditions at prisons like Ayalon, which was built during the British Mandate, are improved.

“If we were a normal country we would build a new prison every four years that would also enable us to employ innovative treatment and rehabilitation models,” she said.

“This isn’t happening because we need half a billion shekels for each new jail. Do we really expect prisoners locked up in these difficult physical conditions to be rehabilitated and return to society as productive citizens? When a prisoner has to cope with rats at night, do you think he’ll feel any obligation to the society he will be going out to?”

Israel’s recidivism rate is high — about 41% on average for all prisoners. Among those younger than 18 the rate is 75% and for those 18 to 20 it is 60% for first-time offenders.

“In Israel we stress the issue of imprisonment and enforcement but we forget the other side of the equation — those who enter will be coming out eventually and then what? The recidivism rate is costing all of us a lot of money and until today no importance has been put on solving it,” said Klinger.

Now, however, the Finance Ministry has decided to make prisoner rehabilitation a top socioeconomic priority. It plans to allocate more funds for it than ever before and to devote more resources to finding innovative solutions to the problem. Klinger said she has never seen more interest in her long career, although she readily admits the enlarged budget is still insufficient.

The new treasury program contains four elements. The first is a new law with 42 amended directives requiring the prison agency to provide rehabilitative and educational services to all prisoners. For that, the authority will receive an additional 200 million shekels over 2016 to 2018 and 160 new staff positions.

Social Finance Israel, a nonprofit organization led by the British philanthropist Sir Ronald Cohen, is drafting an innovative program in cooperation with the treasury.

The third element is transferring responsibility for prisoner rehabilitation from the Social Affairs Ministry, where it is a small and ineffective program, to the Israel Prison Service in the Public Security Ministry.

A final component is reforming the punishment regime at the prisons to avoid using the most severe penalties in prisoners on the assumption that it deters them from normalization and integration into the post-prison world.

One innovative idea for alleviating crowded prison conditions and encourage small-time offenders to forswear crime that is being implemented is community courts, which originated in the United States nearly two decade ago.

In place of ordinary courts in cases of so-called quality-of-life crimes like minor drug offenses, a community court sentences offenders to pay back the community through neighborhood work projects and uses its legal leverage to link offenders with social services. Two now operate in Be’er Sheva and Ramle.

“The deliberations in the court aren’t so much about crime and punishment but about creating a program for those who have committed an offense it the past,” said Daniela Benisch, who helped start the program at the nonprofit JDC-Ashalim.