In Israel, Poor Prisoners Are Less Equal

Effectively, poor Israelis dont have the option of early release from jail

An inmate at Rimonim Prison, near Tel Aviv.
David Bachar

The Israeli justice system allows prisoners to be released before they finish serving their full sentence as long as they meet the criteria set by law. The parole committee which discusses requests for early release must consider, among other things, the degree of danger the prisoner poses and his chances for rehabilitation.

But anyone who has been sentenced not only to jail time but also to pay compensation to his victim and cant afford to do so will generally find his parole application opposed by the prosecution, with the result that in practice, he cannot exercise his right to parole (Lee Yaron, Haaretz in Hebrew, November 12). Thus, in reality, poor people dont have the option of early release from jail.

Prisons are a mirror of society, with all its schisms, ills and norms. In this case, the system unequivocally runs contrary to the original goals of the parole law. It gives preferential treatment to the wealthy and reinforces the pattern that someone with money, even if hes a prisoner, has special privileges.

If a person who committed a crime and was sentenced to both jail and payment of compensation can afford to pay the full sum, then as long as he meets the other criteria for parole, hell also get out of jail. But his poor comrade, even if he committed the same crime and meets the same parole criteria, will be left behind. Moreover, prisoners who arent entitled to parole also arent entitled to participate in rehabilitation programs, which include getting a job, or to receive other assistance from the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority.

Jail sentences are meant not only to remove offenders from society, punish them and deter others, but also to rehabilitate the offenders. Most people who are jailed will eventually be released, so theres a public interest in their being able to reintegrate into society as upstanding citizens.

But in practice, it seems Israeli society sees prison primarily as a mechanism for retribution and revenge against the prisoners, while absolving itself of its responsibility toward the poor. And in the current situation, everybody loses: the prisoner who is denied rehabilitation, who is therefore more likely to return to crime; the victim, whose chance of receiving compensation is reduced (and the compensation grows by 7.5 percent every year, alongside additional sanctions that are imposed on the delinquent prisoner); and of course, society as a whole.

Israel is currently suffering an incarceration crisis. In June, the High Court of Justice ruled that the state is not allowing prisoners a dignified and humane existence and is not complying with the jail standards set by other Western countries. Thus the need to improve prison conditions, and to expand and improve alternatives to imprisonment, is acute.

During a discussion of the matter on Monday by the Knessets Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, chairwoman Tamar Zandberg promised to address this problem. But for the sake of both the prisoners and society, the state must make sure that prisoners who meet all the criteria for parole except the paying of compensation will be allowed to leave jail, work and pay the mandated compensation out of their salaries.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel