Whoever coined the phrase "the wheels of justice grind slowly" couldn't have known just how appropriately it would fit Israel's Supreme Court. And they could not have imagined the industriousness with which Israel's boys from the Treasury would exploit the court's glacial pace to create facts on ground already quaking under the weight of legal dubiousness.
Last week the High Court at long last nixed the notion of private prisons in this country, thereby overthrowing 2004's Knesset legislation permitting such privatization. Although the ruling was a dramatic example of imperious judicial usurpation of the legislature's authority, in this case there was ample justification for court intervention. The legal and moral issues were quite clear. Therefore, the fact that it took the court four-and-a-half years of deliberations to do the obvious is nothing short of incomprehensible.
While our justices were presumably splitting legal hairs, the Treasury busily attempted to tie their hands. The state and private investors brazenly pressed ahead with erecting the very prison against which the Supreme Court had already issued an injunction in 2006. The construction and operation tender was won in 2005 by the Africa-Israel Corporation and associates under Lev Leviev. The consortium in turn hired the consulting services of Texas-based Emerald Correctional Management, which runs a number of prisons in the Lone Star State.
Instructors from the Ramat Gan Academic College of Law petitioned the High Court against the entire project because, they argued, penal facilities come under the definition of "core powers," which Basic Law forbids the state from parceling out. From that point, the entrepreneurs built at their own risk, especially after the injunction put them on formal notice of the strong likelihood that the law would be overturned.
In arrogant defiance of this unequivocal warning, the project was advanced at a pace and efficiency rare for Israel. Thus, early this year, construction of the state-of-the-art, 800-inmate, medium-security facility was completed, down to the plumbing and decorating. Israel's first-ever private prison was ready for inauguration outside Beersheba - until the official housewarming was unceremoniously put on hold by another Supreme Court injunction.
THERE'S NO excuse for the gross judicial procrastination, nor for the executive contravention of injunctions by the highest court in the land.
The price for this free-for-all will doubtlessly be borne by the taxpayer. Africa-Israel - now ironically seeking debt restructuring owing to its failure to honor commitments to its bond-holders (many among them ma-and-pa pension investors) - is currently in position to demand massive state compensation. It will seek reimbursement for its investments in the complex as well as damages for lost potential earnings. The Treasury's clever subterfuge to reduce the burden on public resources has spectacularly backfired. Moreover, employees, already mind-bogglingly hired to man the empty institution, are also demanding compensation. Eventually the state will buy the edifice and rehire personnel at egregiously inflated costs.
This was an eminently superfluous travesty to which all sides contributed impudently.
Given Israel's acute budgetary constraints and severe prison overcrowding (12,600 convicts in 24 facilities), the notion of turning delinquents over to the custody of business interests looked particularly attractive. Currently prisoners here occupy an average of 3.3 sq.m. each, whereas the new prison offers 5.3 sq.m.
Yet weighty questions abound. How would prisoner conduct be judged in a profit-oriented facility? Who would mete out punishment, allow or withhold privileges? Would it be possible to penetrate behind-bars business practices to ascertain that everything is on the up-and-up, that money is spent where earmarked, that bills submitted to the state are honest and that no corrupt connections are established between operators and overseers of penitentiaries far from society's vigilant eye?
As a rule we are uneasy about our intrusive courts' inclinations to commandeer greater powers at the expense of other government branches. This instance, though, constitutes an exception. Here the court is an indispensable watchdog, even if an atrociously sluggish one. The justices didn't put a foot wrong in this case - but they dragged their feet outrageously and thus exacerbated this entire sordid yet incontrovertibly avoidable episode.