Israel takes first major step in judicial reform, deepening divisions

Israel’s parliament on Monday approved the first major law in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious plan to overhaul the country’s justice system, triggering a new burst of mass protests and drawing accusations that he was pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.

The vote, passed unanimously by Netanyahu’s governing coalition after the opposition stormed out of the hall, deepened the fissures that have tested the delicate social ties that bind the country, rattled the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly drew concern from Israel’s closest ally, the United States.

It came just hours after Netanyahu was released from the hospital, where he had a pacemaker implanted, adding another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events.

As Netanyahu’s allies celebrated their victory and vowed to press ahead with more changes, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and opponents said they would challenge the new law in the Supreme Court.

“It’s a sad day,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the vote. “This is not a victory for the coalition. This is the destruction of Israeli democracy.”

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to change the way judges are selected.

Netanyahu and his allies say the changes strengthen democracy by limiting the authority of unelected judges and giving elected officials more powers over decision-making.

But protesters see the overhaul as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu – who is on trial for corruption charges – and his partners.

His allies, who include ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, have called for increased West Bank settlement construction, annexation of the occupied territory, perpetuating military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, and limiting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and Palestinians.

The White House, which has repeatedly urged Netanyahu to pause his overhaul plan until he has a broad consensus, expressed regret. “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” it said.

Under the Israeli system, the prime minister governs through a majority coalition in parliament, giving him control over the executive and legislative branches of government.

As a result, the Supreme Court plays a critical oversight role. Critics say that by seeking to weaken the judiciary, Netanyahu and his allies are trying to erode the country’s checks and balances and consolidate power over the third, independent branch of government.

In a televised address Monday night, Netanyahu rejected such criticism. “Today we did a necessary democratic act, an act that is intended to return a measure of balance between the branches of government,” he said.

He vowed to seek renewed dialogue with the political opposition and called for national unity. “Let us reach agreements,” he said. “I extend my hand in a call for peace and mutual respect between us.”

As he spoke, Israel’s Channel 13 TV showed a split screen with a police water cannon spraying crowds of protesters.

In Monday’s vote, lawmakers approved a measure that prevents judges from striking down government decisions on the basis they are “unreasonable.”

The government’s critics say removing the standard of reasonability opens the door to corruption and improper appointments of unqualified cronies to important positions. The Supreme Court, for instance, this year struck down Netanyahu’s appointment of a key ally for interior and finance minister as unreasonable because of past convictions for bribery and tax cheating.

With the opposition out of the hall, the measure passed by a 64-0 margin.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken the “first step in an important historic process.”

“This is just the beginning,” added National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Opposition lawmakers chanted “shame” and “government of destruction” before leaving the chamber.

The chant was a reference to the upcoming Jewish day of mourning, the Ninth of Av, which marks the destruction of two ancient Temples in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the Roman Empire succeeded in destroying the Second Temple because of Jewish infighting.

The grassroots protest movement, which has regularly drawn tens of thousands of people into the streets for the past seven months, condemned Monday’s vote by Netanyahu’s “government of extremists” and vowed to press ahead.

“No one can predict the extent of damage and social upheaval that will follow the passage of the legislation,” it said.

Thousands of people, many waving blue-and-white Israeli flags, gathered outside the Knesset, or parliament, and the Supreme Court, and jammed Jerusalem’s main highway. Walls and fences were plastered with stickers reading “We won’t serve a dictator,” “Democracy or rebellion” and “Save Israel from Netanyahu.”

Police tried to clear the crowds with water cannons spraying skunk-scented water. Many protesters put plugs in their noses or held up sprigs of rosemary plucked from nearby bushes to try to control the stench.

“This puts us on the way to dictatorship,” said protester Danny Kimmel, a 55-year-old program manager. “You don’t do this to people who are protesting. It’s their right.”

Thousands of people also demonstrated in central Tel Aviv – the epicentre of months of anti-government protests. Scuffles took place between police and protesters, with at least eight people arrested and protesters lighting bonfires. Police said they arrested a driver who hit a group of protesters in central Israel, injuring three people

The overhaul has exposed deep divisions in Israeli society – much of it along religious, ethnic and class lines.

While protesters represent a cross-section of society, they come largely from the country’s secular middle class. At the same time, Netanyahu’s supporters tend to be poorer, more religious and live in West Bank settlements or outlying rural areas.

Many of his supporters are working-class Mizrahi Jews, with roots in Middle Eastern countries, and have expressed hostility toward what they say is an elitist class of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews.

Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority has largely stayed away from the protests, with many saying they do not feel like they have a stake.

The protests have largely avoided Israel’s 56-year occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for-independent state, fearing the issue might alienate supporters. Critics accuse the protesters of harbouring a significant blind spot.

Further ratcheting up the pressure on Netanyahu, thousands of military reservists have declared their refusal to serve under a government they see as setting the country on a path to dictatorship – prompting fears that the military’s preparedness could be compromised.

In his address, Netanyahu urged reservists to continue to serve and “leave army service out of the political debate.”

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said Monday’s vote had exposed long-running weaknesses in Israel’s system of government.

“The immediate outcome will be to escalate internal divisions within Israeli society and undermine Israeli security,” he said. Increased uncertainty, he added, “will also have a negative economic impact.”

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United States sets a grim milestone with new record for the deadliest six months of mass killings

The United States has registered 28 mass killings during the first six months of this year, according to a database maintained jointly by the Associated Press, USA Today and the Northeastern University. This number sets a new grim milestone in the country’s ongoing cycle of gun violence, exceeding the previous record of 27, set in the second half of 2022.

Between January 1 and June 30, the U.S. witnessed the death of 140 people in mass killings, all but one of which involved guns. The death toll rose just about every week.

Law enforcement officials work Sunday, April 30, 2023, in the neighborhood where a mass shooting occurred Friday night, in Cleveland, Texas.
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A mass killing is defined as an occurrence when four or more people are slain, not including the assailant, within a 24-hour period. A database maintained by AP and USA Today, in partnership with Northeastern University, tracks this large-scale violence dating back to 2006. The database does not include non-fatal shootings.

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, never imagined records like this when he began overseeing the database about five years ago.

“We used to say there were two to three dozen a year,” Mr. Fox said. “The fact that there’s 28 in half a year is a staggering statistic.” But the chaos of the first six months of 2023 doesn’t automatically doom the last six months. The remainder of the year could be calmer, despite more violence over the July 4 holiday weekend.

“Hopefully it was just a blip,” said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatrist who is the associate director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. “There could be fewer killings later in 2023, or this could be part of a trend. But we won’t know for sometime,” she added.

Experts like Dr. Barnhorst and Mr. Fox attribute the rising bloodshed to a growing population with an increased number of and access to guns in the U.S. For all the headlines, however, mass killings are statistically rare and represent only a fraction of the country’s overall gun violence.

What politicians are saying

“What a ghastly milestone,” said Brent Leatherwood, whose three children were in class at a private Christian school in Nashville on March 27 when a former student killed three children and three adults. “You never think your family would be a part of a statistic like that.” Mr. Leatherwood, a prominent Republican in a state that hasn’t strengthened gun laws, believes something must be done to get guns out of the hands of people who might become violent.

“You may as well say Martians have landed, right? It’s hard to wrap your mind around it,” he said.

Louisville Metro Police deploy for an “active police situation” that includes mass casualties near Slugger Field in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. April 10, 2023.

Louisville Metro Police deploy for an “active police situation” that includes mass casualties near Slugger Field in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. April 10, 2023.
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Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, had urged the General Assembly in the wake of the Nashville school shooting to pass legislation keeping firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others, so-called “red flag laws,” though Mr, Lee says the term is politically toxic.

Getting such a measure passed in Tennessee is an uphill climb. The Republican-led Legislature adjourned earlier this year without taking on gun control, prompting Mr. Lee to schedule a special session for August.

Mr. Leatherwood, a former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party and now the head of the influential Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, wrote a letter to lawmakers asking them to pass the governor’s proposal.

Mr. Leatherwood said he doesn’t want any other family to go through what his children experienced at the time of the shooting when they were in kindergarten, second grade and fourth grade. One of his kids, preparing for a recent sleepaway camp, asked whether they would be safe there.

“Our child was asking, Do you think that there will be a gunman that comes to this camp? Do I need to be worried about that?’” Mr. Leatherwood said.

The Nashville shooter, whose writings Mr. Leatherwood and other parents are asking a court to keep private, used three guns in the attack, including an AR-15-style rifle. It was one of at least four mass killings in the first half of 2023 involving such a weapon, according to the database.

Students from the Covenant School hold hands after getting off a bus to meet their parents at the reunification site following a mass shooting at the school in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 27, 2023.

Students from the Covenant School hold hands after getting off a bus to meet their parents at the reunification site following a mass shooting at the school in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 27, 2023.
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Nearly all of the mass killings in the first half of this year, 27 of 28, involved guns. The other was a fire that killed four people in a home in Monroe, Louisiana. A 37-year-old man was arrested on arson and murder charges in connection with the March 31 deaths.

The NRA’s view

Despite the rising toll and evidence, the National Rifle Association maintains fierce opposition to regulating firearms, including AR-15-style rifles and similar weapons.

Also read | Two dead and three hurt, including suspected shooter, at Washington state music festival

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ constant efforts to gut the Second Amendment will not usher in safety for Americans; instead, it will only embolden criminals,” NRA spokesman Billy McLaughlin said in a statement. “That is why the NRA continues our fight for self-defence laws. Rest assured, we will never bow, we will never retreat, and we will never apologise for championing the self-defence rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Concern for the children’s future

Tito Anchondo’s brother, Andre Anchondo, was among 23 people killed in a 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The gunman was sentenced last week to 90 consecutive life sentences but could face more punishment, including the death penalty. The prosecution of the racist attack on Hispanic shoppers in the border city was one of the U.S. government’s largest hate crime cases.

Andre Anchondo and his wife, Jordan, died shielding their 2-month-old son from bullets. Paul, who escaped with broken bones, is now 4 years old.

Law enforcement authorities removing bodies from a scene where five people were shot the night before Saturday, April 29, 2023, in Cleveland, Texas. Authorities say an 8-year-old child was among five people killed in a shooting at the home in southeast Texas late on Friday.

Law enforcement authorities removing bodies from a scene where five people were shot the night before Saturday, April 29, 2023, in Cleveland, Texas. Authorities say an 8-year-old child was among five people killed in a shooting at the home in southeast Texas late on Friday.
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Tito said it felt like the country had forgotten about the El Paso victims in the years since and that not nearly enough had been done to stem the bloodshed. He worries about Paul’s future.

“I hope that things can drastically change because this country is going down a very, very slippery slope; a downward spiral,” he said. “It’s just a little unnerving to know that he’s eventually going to go to school with kids that also may bring a gun to school.”

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Biden’s rebuke of a bold, reform-minded crime law makes all Americans less safe

President Joe Biden’s support for a Republican-led effort to nullify the Washington D.C. City Council’s revision of its criminal code, signed into law on Monday, plays into the fear narrative that is being increasingly advanced across the U.S.

Biden could have used his platform and clout to clarify the actual substance of the carefully crafted District of Columbia proposal — and adhere to his campaign commitment to reduce the number of incarcerated Americans.

Instead, the president ignored the glaring problems in D.C.’s existing criminal code, which the 275-page long package of revisions was designed to address. This included reforming the draconian and inflexible sentencing requirements that have swelled the District’s incarceration rate and wasted countless resources imprisoning individuals who pose no danger to public safety. By rejecting this decade-plus effort, the president decided that D.C. residents have no right to determine for themselves how to fix these problems.

There are communities across the U.S. that see virtually no violent crime, and it isn’t because they’re the most policed.

Biden’s decision is the latest backlash to U.S. justice reform coming from both sides of the political aisle.

Instead of doubling down on failed tough-on-crime tactics, Americans need to come together to articulate and invest in a new vision of public safety. We already know what that looks like because there are communities across the country which see virtually no violent crime, and it isn’t because they’re the most policed.

Safe communities are places where people (even those facing economic distress) are housed, where schools have the resources to teach all children, where the water and air are clean, where families have access to good-paying jobs and comprehensive healthcare, and where those who are struggling are given a hand, not a handcuff.

This is the kind of community every American deserves to live in, but that future is only possible if we shift resources from carceral responses to communities and shift our mindset from punishment to prevention. 

Too often it’s easier to advocate for locking people up than it is to innovate and advance a new vision for public safety. 

In the wake of particularly traumatic years, as well as growing divisiveness that has politicized criminal justice reform, it is not surprising that many people believe their communities are less safe. While public perceptions of crime have long been disconnected from actual crime rates and can be heavily influenced by media coverage, the data tells a mixed story. Homicide rates did increase in both urban and rural areas in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and record levels of gun sales.

While early available data suggests these numbers are trending down, it’s too soon to tell, especially given the nation’s poor crime data infrastructure. What is clear is that there is no evidence that criminal justice reform is to blame for rising crime, despite well-funded attempts by those resistant to change and who are intent on driving a political agenda to make such a claim stick. 

Yet fear often obscures facts; people are scared for their safety and want reassurance. Too often it’s easier to advocate for locking people up than it is to innovate and advance a new vision for public safety. 

We need leaders who can govern with both empathy and integrity – who can provide genuine compassion to those who feel scared while also following the data about how to create safer communities. And all the data points to the need for reform. 

Mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion annually.

Mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion annually, when you factor in not only the cost of confinement but also the crushing toll placed on incarcerated people and their families, children, and communities. Despite this staggering figure, there’s no real evidence that incarceration works, and in fact some evidence to suggest it actually makes people more likely to commit future crimes. Yet we keep pouring more and more taxpayer dollars into this short-sighted solution that, instead of preventing harm, only delays and compounds it. 

We have to stop pretending that reform is the real threat to public safety and recognize how our over-reliance on incarceration actually makes us less safe. 

Reform and public safety go hand in hand. Commonsense changes including reforming cash bail, revisiting extreme sentences and diverting people from the criminal legal system have all been shown to have positive effects on individuals and communities.

At a time of record-low clearance rates nationwide and staffing challenges in police departments and prosecutor’s offices, arresting and prosecuting people for low-level offenses that do not impact public safety can actually make us less safe by directing resources away from solving serious crimes and creating collateral consequences for people that make it harder to escape cycles of poverty and crime. 

Yet, tough-on-crime proponents repeatedly misrepresent justice reform by claiming that reformers are simply letting people who commit crimes off the hook. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reform does not mean a lack of accountability, but rather a more effective version of accountability for everyone involved. 

Our traditional criminal legal system has failed victims time and again. In a 2022 survey of crime survivors, just 8% said that the justice system was very helpful in navigating the legal process and being connected to services. Many said they didn’t even report the crime because of distrust of the system. 

When asked what they want, many crime survivors express a fundamental desire to ensure that the person who caused them harm doesn’t hurt them or anyone else ever again. But status quo approaches aren’t providing that. The best available data shows that 7 in 10 people released from prison in 2012 were rearrested within five years. Perhaps that’s why crime victims support alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration by large margins. 

For example, in New York City, Common Justice offered the first alternative-to-incarceration program in the country focused on violent felonies in adult courts. When given the option, 90% of eligible victims chose to participate in a restorative justice program through Common Justice over incarcerating the person who harmed them. Just 7% of participants have been terminated from the program for committing a new crime. 

A restorative justice program launched by former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón for youth facing serious felony charges was shown to reduce participants’ likelihood of rearrest by 44 percent within six months compared to youth who went through the traditional juvenile justice system, and the effects were still notable even four years after the initial offer to participate.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt launched a groundbreaking program last year to allow people convicted of violent offenses to avoid prison time if they commit to behavioral health treatment. As of January, just one of 60 participants had been rearrested for a misdemeanor. 

While too many politicians give lip service to reform, those who really care about justice are doing the work, regardless of electoral consequences. We need more bold, innovative leaders willing to rethink how we achieve safety and accountability, not those who go where the wind blows and spread misinformation for political gain. 

Fear should not cause us to repeat the mistakes of the past. When politicians finally decide to care more about protecting people than protecting their own power, only then will we finally achieve the safety that all communities deserve. 

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a former federal prosecutor, and the author of Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st-Century Prosecutor. Alyssa Kress is the communications director of Fair and Just Prosecution.  

More: Wrongful convictions cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Wrongdoing prosecutors must be held accountable.

Plus: Senate votes to block D.C. crime laws, with Biden’s support

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The challenge of enshrining abortion rights in the French constitution

During a speech given on International Woman’s Day, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the decision to put forward a bill enshrining abortion rights in the country’s constitution. Despite being lauded by women’s rights groups, changing the constitution may be more difficult than it appears.

Perhaps in an attempt to divert attention from the backlash his government is facing over the recent pension reform proposal, Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, March 8 announced his intention to cement abortion rights in the French constitution as he paid tribute to feminist activist Gisèle Halimi, who greatly influenced the passing in 1975 of the Veil Act granting women the right to abortion and contraception.

“Progress made through parliamentary talks initiated by the National Assembly and informed by the Senate would allow, I hope, to inscribe this freedom in our founding text through a bill amending our constitution  introduced in the coming months,” Macron said at the Palais de Justice courthouse in Paris.

The two parliamentary chambers both recently voted – the National Assembly in November, the Senate in February – on adding abortion rights to the constitution, though in different terms.

While the news was warmly welcomed by women’s rights groups, which saw the move as a “victory”, consecrating the right to abortion in the Constitution is still far from reality.

On one hand, a bill put forward by the government is voted on by parliament in a joint session and passes with a three-fifths majority, contrary to a bill submitted by legislators, which is voted on via referendum and seen as more risky.

On the other hand, contrary to the legislators’ proposal, Macron’s government is opting for a bill that looks to bring about wider change in current institutions instead of one that is specifically targeted at consecrating abortion rights.

The draft law is expected to include changes such as the redrawing of current regional borders and the redefining of elected officials’ mandates, according to people close to the president.

Macron has himself evoked the possibility of returning to a seven-year presidential mandate with mid-term elections to uncouple presidential and legislative elections, according to an interview with Le Point magazine given in April 2022.

Conditions for amending the constitution have “never been less favorable since 1962”

But burying abortion rights in a myriad of other institutional reforms is largely criticised by the opposition, which cites fears of being coerced.

“Emmanuel Macron is starting to take some steps and it’s a good thing. But it’s doomed to fail if he wants to make us agree to things that are inacceptable, such as the return of the seven-year term and the proportionality feature,” left-wing political party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) head legislator Mathilde Panot said, adding that the failure of the project would then be entirely the president’s fault.

Indeed, with a fractured National Assembly and no absolute majority, it appears quite implausible for Emmanuel Macron to obtain the 60% of parliamentary votes needed to amend the constitution.

“It seems completely unrealistic,” said Benjamin Morel, a public law professor at the University of Paris-Panthéon-Assas. “The conditions for amending the constitution have never been less favourable since 1962. The Senate and the National Assembly currently exhibit different political colours, and the presidential party doesn’t even have an absolute majority in the Assembly. When Nicolas Sarkozy amended the constitution in a significant way in 2008, despite having a relatively large majority in the Senate and Assembly on his side, the bill passed by a single vote.”

Emmanuel Macron already had a taste of defeat during his first term as president when he submitted a constitutional amendment bill in 2018. This bill included the “dose of proportionality” feature regarding legislative elections, in which the parties would potentially be awarded a number of legislators in line with their results at the national level in addition to the legislators elected in each district, as well as a 30% reduction in legislators, a limit on accumulated mandates, and the abolishment of the Republic’s Court of Justice. The Benalla affair that came to light in the summer of 2018 put a stop to the reform. It was reintroduced in 2019 before being buried once and for all by the Covid-19 crisis.

Has Macron learned his lesson? At a meeting in early February with his presidential predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, he evoked the subject of amending the constitution. According to our information, he aims to create a cross-party commission on the subject of reform, which had already been mentioned during the last presidential campaign. This commission would aim at “reaching a consensus along the lines of what currently exists on abortion rights”, the Élysée Palace indicated.

“Freedom” instead of “right”

Macron’s strategy, however, is unlikely to convince the opposition, especially given that the political left doesn’t present a united front on abortion.

The Senate, with its right-wing majority, has voted in favour of enshrining “women’s freedom” to access abortion in the constitution. This wording leaves out the idea that it is a “right” to access abortion, which the political left in the National Assembly prefers. It is thus the Senate’s wording that Macron adopted in his  speech on Wednesday.

This clash over semantics is anything but trivial. While Emmanual Macron seeks to appease Senators from the conservative party Les Républicains, the use of the word “freedom” instead of “right” has legal consequences, according to Mathilde Panot.

“It’s a pity and dangerous that Emmanuel Macron is choosing the Senate’s version,” she said. “The National Assembly had a strong desire to reaffirm that abortion is a fundamental right for women. By using the word ‘freedom’, they weaken the text,” she added.

Benjamin Morel, however, does not share this view, and considers that access to abortion is guaranteed by either of the wordings. “The difference between ‘right’ and ‘freedom’ is the fact that the Senate’s version leaves the various methods of access to abortion for the Parliament to decide, while the ‘right’ to access abortion as written in the National Assembly’s proposal would hand this power to the Constitutional Council”, he explained.

Still, the whole debate could very well be a show in political manoeuvring, taking into account the unlikelihood that the constitution will actually be amended. When asked for more information, the Élysée Palace had little to say on the exact content of the future constitutional amendment bill, as well as on the timing and the way in which the cross-party commission on the subject would be organised.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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