The Office of the Public Defender on Sunday published its annual report with unusual support from the justice minister regarding fighting false convictions.
Although past justice ministers have in theory supported the office’s efforts, they also must support the much larger state prosecution, and Ayelet Shaked is the first to initiate a campaign against false convictions, which dovetails exactly with its priorities.
For years, the public defender has argued that there are many false convictions resulting from a large volume of defendants who cannot afford a lawyer or who feel pressure to confess in order to be freed from detention.
But only Shaked has formed a commission focused on the issue, giving the office’s report on the subject this year unusual force.
More specifically, the report said the US and England have produced research in recent years showing that an over reliance on forensic evidence has led to an increase in false convictions.
Unlike those countries, the report said Israel’s legal establishment has ignored the trend and still relies on forensic evidence mostly as absolute proof, without recognizing that there is a human element in the collection and use of such evidence.
In addition, the report said that false convictions could be avoided if, in the future, secret reports that the police give courts pre-indictment, would be provided to the defense post-indictment.
The premise of this recommendation is that once most defendants are indicted, the case is essentially made, and there is no need to hide details of the case, as there might be when an investigation is ongoing pre-indictment.
Regarding the number of arrests and the number of defendants kept in detention during investigations, or even until the end of their trials, the report recommended legislation to reduce the number of arrests.
Multiple state commissions and court decisions have said the police are too quick to arrest defendants even in cases where an arrest is not only unnecessary, but can cause damage to the defendants that could have been avoided.
Overlapping with the arrests issue, the report noted this February’s mega-scandal in which Judge Ronit Poznanski-Katz
was caught texting with a prosecutor and planning the outcomes of detention hearings beforehand.
Poznanski-Katz was expelled from the judiciary last week, and three weeks ago, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut issued new regulations strictly prohibiting almost all contact between judges and prosecutors outside of public hearings in the main courtroom.
The report noted that many of its recommendations had become policy under Hayut’s new order.
Regarding the mistreatment of persons with special economic, psychological and emotional issues, the report accused law enforcement of failing to tailor its response to offenses based on the unique state of the offender.
In one specific anecdote, the report said that “S,” who fell into poverty, had left behind a suicide note in which he described his intention to harm himself.
The police arrested S for the crime of making threats against others and requested to keep him detained for three days. The court in the case ordered his immediate release and blasted the police for arresting him, noting that his only crime was being poor and that his suicide note was no evidence that he had committed the crime of threatening others.
On the issue of mistreating offenders, suspects and even citizens who are not offenders, the public defender said it had sent 251 complaints against police for brutality to the Police Investigations Department in 2017.
The office said this reflected a 25% increase from 2016.
It added that only seven of these complaints led to disciplinary proceedings or indictments.
The public defender said police brutality is still under-prosecuted.
Further, the office suggested that indictments against citizens for low-grade physical altercations with police should be handled by the state prosecution, to ensure objectivity, and not by the police prosecution division, as is currently done.
The report also attacked law enforcement’s aggressive prosecution of people using small amounts of cannabis for individual and often medical purposes, but who happen not to have received state permission due to problematic running of the state licensing process.
Even State Comptroller Joseph Shapira recently issued a report slamming the state cannabis licensers for slow response time, and for an improper tendency to reject valid requests.
Finally, the report noted that despite some positive trends, prisoners still lack sufficient space and certain prisons, such as Ofek Prison, abuse minors’ rights.
More specifically, the report said a staggering 70% of minors at Ofek Prison have been disciplined with isolation as their punishment and that a large number have been punished in that manner multiple times.
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