Something strange is happening in our courts. Murder indictments are repeatedly reduced to manslaughter charges, no matter how aggravated the circumstances of crimes that claimed innocent lives. Concomitantly, the sentences too rarely seem to fit the crime.

Anyone with even cursory familiarity with the system realizes that justice and fairness are by no means identical with legal strictures. Yet a wise judiciary strives to bridge the gap.

Our courts, however, seem bent on accentuating their reputation for supercilious insensitivity, and not always because the dry letter of the law leaves them no alternative.

A case in point is that of 51-year-old George Sa’ado, who was shot to death while walking his dog in Ramle last year. Incredibly, the court recently saw fit to rubberstamp a plea bargain that would leave the chief defendant with a 12-year sentence for manslaughter. With time off for good behavior, he’d be out in eight years.

But was this manslaughter? Sa’ado was strolling near Ramle’s Jua’arish neighborhood.

Eight Arab teens accosted him, and shouted anti- Jewish slurs and calls to wreak vengeance for the IDF operations against Gaza.

Sa’ado ignored them. With admitted deliberation they waited for him when he turned back to head home, this time armed with a gun. They shot him and then callously fired twice more – to make sure he was dead and to kill the dog.

Does this sound like a crime committed without forethought and malice? The prosecution initially charged the youth accused of pulling the trigger with murder. But somewhere down the line this was watered down to manslaughter.

To be sure, plea bargains occasionally do serve a purpose.

They make sense whenever police have a hard time proving their case against someone they are convinced is guilty. Moreover, in sexual assault cases, it may be argued that sparing the victim the ordeal of reliving the torment can supersede tougher punishment (although testimony may be taken by video rather than in front of the perpetrator).

There are, additionally, cases in which police are loath to betray sources or expose informants or witnesses.

Last but not least, regrettably, is bureaucratic impetus. If every case in the justice system were tried, it is maintained, the courts would be so overloaded that they would effectively be shut down. Plea bargaining allows prosecutors to obtain guilty pleas in cases that might otherwise go to trial.

Our courts are indeed hopelessly bogged down, but the Sa’ado case is so egregious that speeding up processes and saving costs are intolerable excuses.

Moreover, prosecutors faced no insurmountable difficulties to make the charges stick. They were backed up by surveillance cameras, the shooter’s confession and the testimonies of his accomplices. Issues such as protecting victims or witnesses were not remotely relevant.

This sordid episode leaves us with two disconcerting questions: Why did the prosecution opt for a plea bargain and why did the court accept it? This is distressingly reminiscent of the Arik Karp case.

The three Jaljulya ruffians, convicted of the unprovoked beating to death of Arik Karp on Tel Aviv’s Beach Promenade in August 2009 (in front of his horrified wife and daughter) were sent up for 26 years each – but not for murder. With time off, they will end up doing less than 18 years. In their case, too, the court opted for manslaughter charges because the perpetrators might not have expected their sadistic assault to produce a lethal result.

The juvenile delinquent who in 2006 rang attorney Anat Pliner’s doorbell in Ramat Hasharon, demanded money and proceeded to plunge a commando knife into her abdomen, right in front of her two young children, and who then eluded capture for years, was sentenced to only 18 years. This means that the time served could easily be 12.

Mind-boggling plea bargains affect the safety of us all and chip away at our trust in the system. Justice not only has to be done; it has to be seen to be done for the public to maintain faith in its functioning. The only remedy, perhaps, is for the Knesset to enact mandatory sentencing legislation.

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