Ramon to push 'basic punishment' bill

Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Wednesday that he would bring a controversial amendment to the Penal Code next week, instructing judges to give standard sentences to convicted criminals, for a vote in first reading in the Knesset. In his first appearance before the Knesset Law Committee, Ramon told the MKs that the amendment was one of the central goals of his tenure. One day earlier, the Bar Association announced that it opposed the bill, which calls for a committee appointed by the justice minister to determine the "basic" punishment that a judge should hand down for every criminal act in the statute book. Until now, the law determined only the maximum sentence that a judge may hand down, or, in certain cases such as sex-related crimes, the minimum and maximum sentences. Ramon said that the judges had no guidelines for determining what the punishment should be for "regular" instances of any given crime, as opposed to "extreme" instances, where the maximum sentence may be appropriate. But according to the Bar Association, "the amendment would cause injury to the rights of defendants. If approved by the Knesset, it will cause a significant and unjustified worsening in the severity of the punishments. Moreover, it constitutes gross interference in the prerogatives of the judicial branch and an expression of no-confidence in the professional abilities of the judges." In his presentation to the court, Ramon complained about how slow legal procedures often were, particularly in the investigation of suspects and the decision by the police or state prosecution as to whether or not to indict. According to Justice Ministry figures from 2005 that Ramon presented to the committee, state prosecutors had not begun to work on 9,000 files, dating back to 1998. Some 600 files had been gathering dust on the shelves for more than three years, he said. Part of the problem of the case overload could be solved by handing over the less important civil cases to private lawyers, he continued. In 2005, about 16,000 civil cases were opened in the various district attorneys' offices. Ramon said that if one-third of them were farmed out to private lawyers, it would free up 100 state prosecutors for more important cases. According to his figures, the number of labor court cases grew by 177 percent between 1999 and 2005, while appeals against income tax department levies had increased by 85%. State lawyers also appeared in the small claims courts. "The prosecutors should not be appearing in this court," said Ramon. "An hour of their time is priceless." His plan to partially privatize the state prosecution drew fire later in the day, when the national organization of state prosecutors announced that it "totally rejects the intention to privatize the state prosecution. The organization of state prosecutors intends to wage a determined battle against Ramon's plan... The remedy to the heavy burden on the state prosecution is not to destroy it." Ramon also announced that he planned to establish a special court in Tel Aviv that would only handle cases of organized crime, including serious economic crimes. He told the MKs that the advantage of such a court was that it could hear cases continuously and without lengthy interruptions. It was difficult for regular courts to deal with such matters because it required an expanded bench and it was difficult to find time to bring several judges together to hear cases because of the busy schedule of each one. As a result, Ramon continued, trials dragged on, witnesses evaporated and the state often settled for plea bargain agreements in which the suspects had the upper hand. Instead of deterring others from committing similar crimes, the current system encouraged potential criminals to carry them out, since they knew the price they would have to pay would not be high.