Space with pardons

Building more prisons is not the only solution to overcrowding.

Prison (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
President Reuven Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked have announced their intention to grant pardons or clemency to certain prisoners as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel.
This is a positive move that can help alleviate the overcrowded prisons and let free prisoners who are being held solely because they are too poor to pay court-ordered fines.
Both overcrowding and the extended incarceration of prisoners because they cannot pay fines have been severely criticized by the Supreme Court as violations of human rights.
Unfortunately, the state continues to drag its feet regarding overcrowding. Earlier this month, officials requested a nine-year extension to give the state time to implement a High Court demand to alleviate overcrowding by 2019.
Building more prisons is not the only solution to overcrowding.
Finding an alternative to incarceration – particularly for first-time offenders with light sentences – is one option. Pardons or clemency is another.
It is something of a tradition for countries to issue pardons on national occasions. In Israel presidents issued pardons or commuted sentences on the 30th, the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the state, as well as on the 15th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem.
There is no logical connection between the granting of pardons or clemencies and the celebration of the state’s establishment. Nevertheless, Rivlin noted, as reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Greer Fay Cashman, that “special anniversaries are important to us as individuals and as a nation. We celebrate birthdays, bar mitzvas, 10th anniversaries and jubilees, and commemorate memorial days – the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah as well as other religious festivals and holy days.”
Not all convicts are eligible for pardon or clemency.
Murderers, rapists and those who committed security- related crimes will not be considered by the president.
First-offenders who are serving a sentence of less than two years (this represents about 3,000 prisoners, about a quarter of them) will be among those eligible.
In addition, the ill, the elderly (aged 70 or older), those who were abused by their victims, those with small children who are living with someone who is not their mother or father, those who have already served a third of their sentence, and those who are serving a prison sentence instead of a fine, will all be eligible.
Prisoners who wish to receive a pardon or clemency must apply during a six-month period that begins on Independence Day.
High-profile convicts who will be eligible include former tourism minister and Yisrael Beytenu MK Stas Meseznikov, who was convicted of fraud and breach of trust, and singer Kobi Peretz, convicted of tax evasion.
In contrast, Yonatan Heilo, who killed a man who sexually abused him, will not be eligible because Rivlin will not consider murderers. (Rivlin has already commuted part of his sentence.) Former chief rabbi Yonah Metzger will also not be eligible, since he will not have served a third of his three-and-a-half-year sentence for bribery by the time the six-month period is over. He is also serving a prison sentence of more than two years and is younger than 70.
By issuing pardons and clemencies, Rivlin will meet two goals. On the one hand, he will use the occasion of the 70th anniversary of independence to pardon or grant clemency to convicts who have a high chance of undergoing full rehabilitation.
At the same time, Israel will stop the practice of discriminating against poor convicts who remain in prison not because they have not completed their sentence but because they lack the money to pay fines or reparations to victims.
In addition, a large number of pardons – particularly to those who are serving sentences of less than two years – will help the state to increase the volume of living space afforded to remaining prisoners.
It is a stain on the Jewish state that it does not meet internationally accepted criteria for prisoner treatment.
Israel’s 70th birthday is a perfect time to right this wrong.