'Crime-fighting system needs a total overhaul'

Architect of prisoner rehabilitation program promotes a holistic approach.

crime 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski and AP [file])
crime 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski and AP [file])
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming general elections, and whoever becomes the next public security minister, Avraham Hoffman is hoping for no less than a revolution in Israel's approach to crime-fighting. Hoffman is the founder of the Prison Rehabilitation Authority (PRA), which has won international recognition for being one of the most successful such programs in existence. The system is based on releasing prisoners who served two-thirds of their sentence to hostels planted in the middle of residential neighborhoods, with the full backing of the local community. The result has been enormously successful, and some European governments are examining Hoffman's ideas with a view to emulating them. Sitting in his Jerusalem apartment surrounded by volumes of the Talmud and other Jewish books, Hoffman, a religious man, admits his quest to improve the lives of people and to reform lawbreakers stems from a universal love of man. Hoffman backs up the lofty ideals with practical-minded proposals he hopes the next pubic security minister will adopt. "Crime can't be fought one-dimensionally," he said during an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week. The police is a vital tool in fighting crime, he said, a tool Hoffman labels as "the stick," but if it were left to deal with crime on its own, the results would be limited at best, he warned. "We need to create a situation in which neighborhoods have no interest in cooperating with criminals," he said. "What usually happens is that gangs and criminals take over people's lives. Civilians have nothing to fight back with." Empowering local councils and mayors by giving them jurisdiction over local police forces and plying the worst-affected authorities with state funds were steps in the right direction, Hoffman suggested. "Take five cities that have the highest crime levels, and create a five-year plan in which these communities receive top priority for state funds," he proposed. The funds should be channeled to building roads, ensuring a decent sewage system, and invested in housing and education programs. Only an overall approach of this nature could neutralize incentives for local residents to be caught up in crime, Hoffman said. "The people who don't cooperate with crime will then benefit. Fear will decrease," he added. Hoffman's out-of-the-box thinking has proven itself in the past. When he set up the first hostel to rehabilitate female prisoners, he arranged for police on horseback to patrol the premises every quarter of an hour, to allay community fears over the presence of the hostel. "As a result, crime in the area dropped. The opposite of what people feared happened," he recounted. "People don't need ideological rhetoric and slogans about crime, but real-life proof of change. And that can't be achieved by the police alone," Hoffman said. "My advice for the incoming minister of security is to change the system. Not to just do more of the same. We need new content," he added. One of the biggest problems in the current law enforcement system was what Hoffman described as the "comfort zone" enjoyed by officials and bureaucrats who settle for mediocrity. "People like being comfortable. It's not because they're bad, it's human nature. But this is one of the biggest dangers," Hoffman said. "In the Torah, Ya'acov sat in his father's land after escaping his brother Esau. He wanted his comfort zone. But in the end he had to change," Hoffman said. Hoffman is particularly worried about the nation's youth, whom he says live in a digital world in which schools no longer monopolize information, and the authority of teachers had fallen drastically. It is a world radically different from the one he grew up in. "My teacher would silence us with a stare. Today, parents are busy, many do not have time for their children," he said. One of the ways to combat this phenomenon is to establish youth movements in some of the most deprived neighborhoods, Hoffman said. In fact, he has already launched such an initiative, setting up a branch of Bnei Akiva in a tough Jerusalem neighborhood several years ago. Many of the new members of the movement were former shoplifters, and the first thing they did was collectively march up to the stores they targeted to return the goods they had stolen. Such steps ensure that police don't find themselves on one side of the fence, with the rest of the neighborhood on the other, Hoffman said. Hoffman does not overlook minorities, having set up the first-ever hostel for Arab prisoners in Haifa specially designed to cater to their needs as Muslims. The hostel was named "new spring" in Arabic, and Hoffman is warmly hugged by the residents when he visits there. "Reality can be changed. But the bureaucrats can't do it. People need to be shown love and respect," Hoffman said.