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Criminal law experts warned on Sunday that a government bill aimed at standardizing sentences handed down by judges in criminal cases could lead to disproportionately harsh sentences.
The bill was approved in first reading by the Knesset in June, despite heavy criticism from various legal quarters.
"I am not very enthusiastic about it," Hebrew University law Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer told a workshop on sentencing considerations at the Bar-Ilan University faculty of law. "The legislation will not enable us to avoid political pressure to increase the severity of the punishment."
If the bill becomes law, the justice minister will appoint a committee to determine the "core" sentence for every criminal offense. The judge in each case would be able to add or subtract from the core sentence in accordance with a series of possible mitigating or incriminating circumstances. However, he would not be allowed to stray far from the core sentence.
The core punishments recommended by the Justice Ministry committee would have to be approved by the Knesset Law Committee.
Kremnitzer and Doron Teichman, an assistant professor of law at Hebrew University, said allowing the justice minister to appoint the committee gave him too much power to determine whether sentences would be harsh or lenient.
"This situation could lead to harsher sentences because of the politicization of criminal law," said Teichman. "The pressure groups that demand harsher punishments are the stronger ones in society. The power given to the justice minister is problematic. We need an independent committee."
Kremnitzer added that the power of the Knesset Law Committee to approve or reject core punishments was also problematic. "The committee is influenced by public opinion and may make its decisions accordingly," he said. "Those who thought the bill would remove politics from the issue of punishments may find that the opposite is happening, that we are bringing the political echelon deep into the sentencing process."
Despite his opposition to the government bill, Teichman said he agreed in principle with the need for the standardization of sentences and for a panel to determine the core punishments. For one thing, it would make punishments more equal and therefore fairer, he said. A committee would also be able to take a broader view of the crime and the appropriate punishment, using objective criteria rather than intuition as judges currently do, he said.
Kremnitzer, however, said he favored an independent committee including academics and judges that would serve in an advisory capacity only, with no formal powers. Such a committee would at least be free of political pressures, he said.