Prisoners must not be denied parole because they don’t have enough money to compensate their victims, the Supreme Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision on Tuesday.
The 2-1 ruling said that if a prisoner meets the other criteria for early release, his parole cannot be conditioned on compensation payment. It is expected to affect dozens of prisoners, some of whose cases Haaretz has reported on in recent months.
Though all three justices agreed that the appellant in the particular case before them should be freed, Justice Uzi Vogelman dissented from his colleagues on the broader issue. He argued that there are cases where nonpayment of compensation could be grounds for denying parole.
The appeal was filed by the Public Defender’s Office on behalf of Yonatan (not his real name), a homeless man who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for manslaughter. After 11 years, the parole board decided to grant him parole. But due to a bureaucratic error, the money he had given the state collection agency to compensate the victim’s mother had instead been used instead to pay his outstanding traffic tickets. The agency then canceled the entire compensation agreement and replaced it with one whose financial terms Yonatan was unable to meet. The compensation was never paid.
The prosecution appealed his parole to a district court, which ruled that he should remain in prison. The court harshly criticized this decision.
The existing Parole Law does not give the payment of compensation as a condition for parole; it merely requires parole boards to consider whether compensation has been paid, “and if it wasn’t paid, the reasons for this.” Despite this, both prosecutors and parole boards have treated compensation as a nonnegotiable condition, which often results in poor prisoners being denied parole.
Public defenders Ariella Gueta and Anat Yaari argued that this was an unacceptable interpretation of the law that defied the legislature’s original intent. Justices Anat Baron and Uri Shoham agreed.
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“There’s no basis in the language of the Parole Law for the payment of compensation to the victim of the crime to be a threshold condition for release from jail, nor is it possible to find support for the existence of such a condition in the law’s purpose,” Baron said, writing for the majority.
While compensation payments can be a measure of the victim’s awareness of the harm he did and the desire to atone for it, she continued, the law also provides other ways to measure his repentance, and compensation is just one of many criteria parole boards must consider.
In this particular case, given that even the prosecution admitted the appellant posed no danger to the public, “it’s impossible to avoid the impression that leaving the appellant in prison serves as a sanction of nonpayment of the compensation,” Baron wrote. “No less important,” she added, treating compensation as the supreme consideration “undermines the Parole Law’s rehabilitative purpose” and harms “the public interest in rehabilitating prisoners and restoring them to society.”
Even apart from this broader issue, the justices said, the lower court’s ruling in Yonatan’s case was particularly outrageous for two reasons. The first was his successful efforts to rehabilitate himself, as reflected by the fact that all the parties involved agreed he no longer posed a danger.
“Even if the district court thought the appellant didn’t try hard enough to pay the compensation, given the circumstances of the case, this wasn’t enough to justify intervening in the parole board’s professional judgment,” Baron wrote.
The second reason was the fact that he actually did try to pay the compensation, but the money never arrived to its intended destination due to the collection agency’s own error in crediting it to his outstanding traffic tickets instead of transferring it to the victim.
Moreover, Baron wrote, the agency then compounded this error by canceling the terms of the original compensation agreement and replacing them with new terms that were much harder for Yonatan to meet. The original agreement required him to pay about 800 shekels ($230) a month. But the new agreement obliged him to pay 30,000 shekels in one month – an amount he was unable to raise.