What Has Remorse Got to Do With It?
Today the Parole Board heard arguments for and against early release of former Israeli president, Moshe Katzav, the sex offender, and they have yet to announce their decision. Found guilty on two counts of rape, workplace sexual harassment, indecent behavior and obstruction of justice, this man received what appears to be a short sentence of only 7 years in prison. Now, after 4 years, he is asking to be let out of his prison cell and back into society. While the law seems to be on the side of letting him go free, the court of public opinion is apparently, for the most part, dead-set against that.
I also want him to sit out his entire sentence behind bars. At the same time, I want you to understand the principles behind the decision making process regarding early release. I feel authorized to provide you with this information given that, for 30 years, I was a sex trauma therapist and for over 10 years I ran a multidisciplinary center for the treatment of sex trauma survivors and perpetrators, and their families. In order to make sure I am presenting accurate information, I consulted with colleagues still working today with sex offenders.
Parole versus Sentencing versus Pardon
First of all, it is important to understand that there is one set of criteria for determining punishment and another set of criteria for determining whether or not to release a criminal from jail before having served the entire sentence. Sentencing is set by looking back at the crime: what crime was committed, how often, over how long, to how many victims? At that point, offender expression of guilt and remorse, if any, are taken into account. Impact of the crime on the victim is included into the equation. These factors and more are weighed up in light of legal minimum and maximum sentences permitted for the crimes committed.
On the other hand, parole looks forward, seeing the future re-entry of the offender into society. The questions asked are less related to the crime itself, and more to the potential future danger the criminal poses to those around him or her.
Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between early release decisions and a presidential pardon, something Knesset Member Aliza Lavie is confused about, if one can judge by her blog post. Her post, riddled with misconceptions, starts with the statement that parole is somehow related to Jewish values regarding forgiveness and compassion. Parole has nothing to do with forgiveness – presidential pardon does. So if, for some reason, a request for pardon is placed at some future time before the sitting president of Israel, she can pull out this blog post and send it to him at that juncture. For now, it is absolutely irrelevant.
Secondly, Lavie confidently states:
. . . one precondition for those in favor of early prisoner release is unequivocal evidence of wholehearted regret.
This is nonsense. While intuitively it may seem obvious that granting of early release should depend on taking responsibility for one’s crimes, it does not. Countless criminals, even sex offenders, have been let out on parole while they still proclaim their innocence. (There is none so pitiful as the perpetrator who whines about being victimized by the system, the media or his or her own victims!)
Criteria for Granting Parole:
- Good behavior in prison;
- Risk assessment that predicts low probability of reoffending in the future;
- No other convictions awaiting judgement;
- No previous parole violations.
Risk assessments for sex offenders are carried out by specialized professionals who are well aware of the lies and manipulations that characterize this population of criminals. Their task is to make sense of the various aspects of the prisoner’s personality, family situation and life context that can help predict how likely he or she is to commit the same crime in the future. A low assessment of risk increases the chances of granting parole.
Notice that admitting guilt, showing remorse and demonstrating empathy for the injuries sustained by the victim are not on this list.
Why Remorse is Not a Factor
Quite simply, research has shown that admitting guilt and showing remorse has little bearing on determination of future risk. It seems absurd, but it is true. In fact, recidivism (recommitting similar crimes after incarceration) is lowest for sexual offences, especially when the victim was not a family member. Lack of guilt and remorse apparently increases risk of recidivism only for incest perpetrators.
The Parole Process
In Israel, criminals have the law-given right to request consideration for early release after having served 2/3 of their sentence. They do not have the automatic right to parole, but they have the right to ask for it. Katsav is merely exercising his right to ask.
The Parole Board is made up of at least a (retired) judge, the offender’s legal representative, a prosecuting lawyer, and two members of the community at large. The victim can submit a written statement or have a representative present at the meeting. The board will determine whether or not to grant parole and if yes, under what conditions.
Conditions for parole often include a treatment plan and supervision arrangements that try to ensure a smooth re-entry after jail. After all, one can expect a period of readjustment to life on the outside and it may not be an easy adjustment. While we may not have any sympathy to spare for a victimizer, especially one who vehemently denies any wrongdoing, as a society we should also not have any interest in seeing criminals unable to become functioning members of the community upon release.
Katsav and Parole
I do not have access to Katsav’s risk assessment materials, but from what I have been able to glean from public records, it appears his low risk for recidivism is because he only committed the crimes within the context of his role as boss. He is not expected to be offered a job that would put him in that same position again, of employing young women, and therefore, he is not expected to re-offend. The stipulation that he not accept such a position in the future may even be a condition of his release, early or otherwise.
The legal argument for early release is in Katsav’s favour: low recidivism risk, good behaviour in jail, no other charges against him and no history of parole violations (since this was his first offence). However, the social implications are in favour of denying him parole.
In spite of the fact that many sex offenders are released on parole while still denying the crimes that sent them to jail, Katsav is not like these others – he is a “celebrity” offender. It is to our credit that even a former president was able to be found guilty of a heinous crime as if all men are equal before the law. Unfortunately, all men are not equal, and if Katsav is released early while openly denying the crimes, without having even begun any form of rehabilitative therapy while in prison, this can have the effect of encouraging offenders in the future to maintain denial and refuse therapy. He can still serve as such a role model after completing his sentencing and coming out against the media, pulling the naïve along with him in his act. But at least he will not have been awarded, in the eyes of others, the prize of 3 years shaved off his allotted time behind bars.
Katsav is a proud man. Perhaps he is operating from a position that has not allowed him to accept the mantle of sex offender upon his public persona. Perhaps he will begin therapy once he is back home and can do so in the privacy of a private therapist’s office, without having prison social work teams discussing the inner workings of his mind. Perhaps not.
Regardless of how Katsav eventually comes to terms with being a sex offender (or does not), the public is watching now. And, while the law may be dry, its impact on society is not.