Law & Order: Breaking the crime cycle

Avraham Hoffman argues that rehabilitation for criminals is not only the moral option, it also pays economically.

Warden 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Warden 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The public debate over how high a price criminals should pay for their crimes has always been fierce. Popular sentiment has traditionally called for handing down sterner punishments for criminals, noted Avraham Hoffman, the founder and former head of the Israel Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, during an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week.
“On the other end of the spectrum, civil rights groups want lower sentences,” he noted. “There are many contracting pressures on the criminal justice system.”
In the midst of the ongoing argument, Hoffman, a religious man, believes Judaism and Jewish texts provide a clue to a solution that would be acceptable to all sides and benefit society in every conceivable way.
He presented his ideas last month to delegates from dozens of states at the annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association, in Singapore.
“I am talking about the philosophy of rehabilitation. Why should we rehabilitate?” he told members of the conference, of which he has been addressing annually for a decade. “I’ve been talking to you for 10 years about how to rehabilitate. Now I’d like to talk about why.”
Hoffman noted that in biblical texts there are instructions to issue proportional punishments “that have a clear beginning and an end.”
He said the Biblical remedy for finite punishments is undermined by the ongoing stigma faced by criminals who are released from prisons, or the failure to help them break the crime cycle.
He cited Deuteronomy 25, which states, “...And it shall be, if the guilty one has incurred [the penalty of] lashes, that the judge shall make him lean over and flog him, commensurate with his crime, in number... he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging... and your brother will be degraded before your eyes.”
In modern times, Hoffman said rehabilitation is the ideal way of ensuring punishments have a clear end and criminals do not return to the life of crime. Furthermore, he argued, “in economic terms, if you build more prison cells, you run out of money that you need to house prisoners every year.”
“It costs NIS 180,000 a year to house prisoners.
But it only costs NIS 60,000 a year to place them in a rehabilitation hostel. By splitting a jail sentence into part prison time, part rehabilitation time, the state can save large sums,” he said.
Beyond immediate savings, both state and society experience a reduction in crime and a drop in the numbers of reoffenders, Hoffman said.
“According to our polls, in Israel, 90 percent of prisoners who do not take part in rehabilitation go on to reoffend. 60% of those who are placed in rehabilitation programs reoffend.
“We need to create a public atmosphere that accepts the released prisoners, and offers social and political support for rehabilitation,” Hoffman said. “It is the most effective solution for the justice system, morally and economically.”
Hoffman said he witnessed an impressive rehabilitation program in Singapore, a state known for its ultra-harsh justice system.
“They have a program called Yellow Ribbon, named after the symbol used by wives and girlfriends waiting for their partners to be released,” Hoffman said.
The initiative is aimed at assisting 9,000 ex-offenders, and is driven by the same vision that led to the creation of Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, he noted.
In Israel, the largest obstacle to rehabilitation was government budgetary constraints, Hoffman said.
An increase in investment would result in huge savings, he said he believes, both in financial and human costs.