According to data disclosed at this week's Beersheba Conference on Child Welfare, some 2,500 complaints are filed annually in Israel regarding sexual assaults against minors under 14. Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child, paints a darker picture yet, estimating that over the past several years no fewer than 100,000 of this country's children have suffered some degree of sexual molestation. Most cases never reach the courts and most offenders aren't brought to justice. Yet in those that are, sentences meted out to pedophiles tend to be exceptionally lenient. Even hardcore repeat offenders are hardly supervised after they are released back to society. Legislation adopted to keep track of them remains largely unimplemented. Studies conducted recently for the council, Kadman reported, indicated that not only do judges sometimes impose ludicrously mild punishments for pedophilia but they often fail to impose even the minimum stipulated by law. Incomprehensibly, punishment for offenses against children tends to be significantly lighter than for offenses against adults. The lightest penalties are reserved for crimes within the family. The greatest leniency appears in plea bargains. While judges sometimes criticize such bargains, they nevertheless (in 99% of the cases, according to Kadman) acquiesce to them. This despite the fact that legislation enacted a decade ago fixed minimum sentences for certain sex crimes. Moreover, the law demands a clear explanation in cases where the minimum is disregarded. Yet council research found only two cases in the past three years in which judges bothered to account for extra lenient sentencing. One of the cases cited was of a teacher who molested his 13-year-old female student. He was given six months community service and another 14 months' probationary sentence. By law he could have been imprisoned for up to seven years. But the judges' lapses aren't the only problem. The entire system seems to make a mockery of the law. Some 300 convicted sex offenders, most of them pedophiles, are released from prison each year and, despite existing legislation, aren't supervised. Most are repeat offenders. Of the 300, two-thirds are judged as "seriously dangerous." A 2006 law which mandated careful evaluation of each sex offender eligible for release, and close supervision following said release, essentially remains on paper only. The cause: budgetary constraints. Health Ministry psychiatrists complain that a lack of manpower limits evaluations. When these are made, they are completed late, after the offender has been set loose. The ministry reported to the Knesset Law Committee recently that even when evaluations meet deadlines, the prosecution does not apply for court-ordered supervision and closes cases of some dangerous offenders. Thus the authorities have no way of gauging how many menaces they release into the vulnerable population. Of Israel's currently imprisoned 1,200 sex offenders, some 50 are behind bars for the sixth time or more. About 25 percent are thought likely to strike again, though that is almost certainly an underestimate: the highest recidivism rates are among pedophiles. Although the 2006 law has yet to be applied, complimentary legislation is being piled on. The Knesset recently approved a bill by Shelly Yacimovich forbidding the employment of sex offender ex-cons in schools and institutions for the disabled. Michael Eitan's pending bill would regulate rehabilitation services for ex-cons, while another legislative initiative, by Eli Aflalo, would set up a nationwide offender register, accessible to members of the public to forewarn them of past offenders in their vicinity. The latter two bills still have a long legislative route ahead before they are ratified. But what then? A law that decorates our legal codes but isn't put into effect is a dead letter. It fails to protect those most in need, and becomes a demoralizing travesty that further corrodes the citizenry's trust in the system - especially when those who disrespect legal strictures include the judges themselves. "The Knesset," as Kadman put it, "insisted on minimum sentences because it perceived the existing situation as too lax and as lacking any real deterrent or protection value. But the judiciary seems to be telling the legislature that 'you can stipulate what you wish but we will do as we please.' Judges abhor guidelines." It is not just the police who are charged with protecting children from sexual predators, but the entire judicial system. If judges do not want more guidelines, they had better do a better job of enforcing the law themselves.