(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The thorny issue of prison furloughs made a strong impression on the public last week, when it emerged that Ami Popper - serving 40 years for the murder of seven Arabs near Rishon Lezion in 1990 - was driving the car that collided with another vehicle on the Arava Highway, killing his wife and six-year-old son. Popper was heading back to prison at the end of a 48-hour furlough.
That a convict like Popper was given leave has engendered much consternation.
The accident, of course, was not related to his crime. It can even be argued that it was not directly related to the risk of temporarily releasing prisoners. Nor did his reported behavior in prison indicate that he posed a particular risk to the public. Therefore it is not surprising that he qualified under the usual standards for furloughs.
But do these standards make any sense?
Furloughs are considered by some experts to be necessary safety valves. However granting them to irremediable felons leaves more than a few niggling questions. This is a policy in need of serious reevaluation, and there may be even relevant cases than Popper's pointing to a need for such rethinking. There is no lack of frightening precedents for reassessing vacations for convicts.
Police officer Shlomi Asulin was gravely wounded in Rehovot earlier this month when he caught recidivist robber Tareb Abu-Issa breaking into a car. Abu-Issa stabbed him in the neck with the screwdriver he had used to pry open the hood. Abu-Issa was on furlough from a four-year term for auto larceny and burglary. There were no indications he had reformed.
Also in Rehovot, 15-year-old Ma'ayan Sapir was viciously raped and murdered near her home in 2005. Her 16-year-old attacker was a juvenile delinquent with a particularly nasty record, who was free on furlough from a correctional institution. Given his violent past, he should not have been let out.
This young repeat offender's case provides a classic illustration of how inordinately trusting courts prefer hypothetical rehabilitation scenarios of violent criminals to safeguarding our citizens.
From age 12, Ma'ayan's assailant was involved in drugs, break-ins and inflicting grievous bodily harm. Prior to his "vacation," he assaulted a fellow inmate, carving curses on his victim's body. The police and welfare authorities demanded incarceration in an adult penitentiary. The court opted for leniency and sent him to a juvenile detention facility, whose inmates receive regular furloughs. His fateful chance encounter with Ma'ayan occurred while he was on his second furlough.
Lifer Rafi Nahmani murdered Tel Aviv District Court judge Adi Azar while on furlough in 2004. In a country with no capital punishment, this professional assassin had nothing to lose. Common sense should have denied him leave. It didn't.
The contract hit on Azar was no bolt from the blue. The two teens who murdered taxi driver Derek Roth for kicks in 1994 also enjoyed leave from prison. During one furlough they held up a grocery and badly wounded its proprietors.
The prison authorities refused them further furloughs, but the violent robbery did not persuade a judge to rule likewise. One of the slayers - Moshe Ben-Ivgi - fled abroad during a subsequent furlough that he was supposed to spend at home under his father's supervision. He has since been extradited from Argentina.
Other vacationing prisoners abscond. "Southern rapist" Meir Assur, who once terrorized the Negev, was allowed a time-out too, despite the nature of his crime and the high recidivism rate of sex offenders. He disappeared, and long eluded capture.
Furloughs are even granted to husbands convicted of domestic abuse. Many return home to kill.
The emphasis in some cases musn't be on rehabilitation vs punishment but on public safety. Dangerous and brutal offenders should first and foremost be removed from society so as not to imperil ordinary citizens.
Furloughs, even according to current law, are not a right but a privilege. Not all prisoners should receive such privileges, most certainly not those with unabated violent tendencies. Bitter experience ought to teach our law enforcers it is better to err on the side of caution than to treat aggressive prisoners with indulgence they do not deserve.
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