Open letter to Australian governments on COVID-19 and the criminal justice system

March 21, 2020

ALHR President Kerry Weste has signed onto an open letter on behalf of ALHR, calling for all Australian governments to take urgent action reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the criminal justice system, especially in prisons and youth detention centres.

The open letter calls on Australian governments, as a matter of urgency, to:

  • Ensure people in prison are informed on the status of COVID-19 and their rights;
  • Ensure compliance with international laws and the standards for health treatment of prisoners;
  • Adopt, to the extent possible, best-practice sanitation (including alcohol-based sanitisers if necessary) and social distancing techniques to promote safety;
  • Support not-for-profit and government agencies to work with people in prison and their families to find them safe accommodation when they are released;
  • Minimise the impact of restrictions on people in prison (e.g., frequent opportunities to communicate with family online, in the absence of face-to-face visits; increased access to and availability of phones; judicious approach to the use of solitary confinement);
  • Minimise the use of resources on the detection and prosecution of non-violent offences that do not pose a significant risk to the community;
  • Support bail and non-custodial penalties for all defendants who do not present a very high risk that cannot be managed in the community (eg, through electronic monitoring), noting that stringent restrictions on daily movement are likely;
  • Legislate to require bail and sentencing courts to consider the risk that a current pandemic will present to the prisoner and their community upon release, with a view to promoting community-based options;
  • Facilitate remote supervision of bail and community corrections;
  • Provide additional support to victims, noting the likely increased risk of family violence for those in home quarantine conditions;
  • Resource community legal centres, legal aid, Aboriginal legal services and prosecution agencies to facilitate remote interaction;
  • Provide for the early release of people in prison, including:
    • those at high risk of harm from COVID-19, including those with pre-existing health conditions and older people;
    • children and young people;
    • those detained for summary offences (e.g., unlawful driving; public disorder; fine default); property crimes; non-violent drug offences; common assault; and breach of justice procedures; and *those who are likely to be released in the next six months.

You can read the open letter here

A media release to accompany the open letter follows below:




Limited release of prisoners may prevent COVID-19 break out

Criminal law experts are recommending the limited release of elderly, young and minor offenders from Australian jails and detention centres to avoid a preventable COVID-19 outbreak.

Professor Lorana Bartels from The Australia National University and Professor Thalia Anthony from the University of Technology Sydney coordinated an open letter to state and territory governments calling for urgent reforms to protect the prison population from the global health pandemic. More than 340 legal experts signed the letter.

“Australian prisons and detention centres will become epicentres for the transmission of COVID-19, if governments don’t act now,” said Professor Bartels, Program Leader of the ANU Criminology Program.

“Among a range of recommendations, we’re calling for the early release of vulnerable prisoners and detainees who are at high risk of harm from COVID-19.”

This includes those with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly and very young, those detained for summary offences such as unlawful driving, property crimes and those who are likely to be released in the next six months.

Professor Anthony said urgent measures, including the release of prisoners, have been taken in response to the COVID-19 emergency in the United States, the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

“Australian governments must provide a coherent approach to protect prison populations here in Australia” she said.

“It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 breaks out in our prisons and youth detention centres. This will then have a substantial flow-on effect to the community.”

Professor Bartels said justice reforms to protect the health of prisoners and the broader community were essential.

“Prisoners have an acute risk of experiencing the severe and critical consequences of COVID-19 due to pre-existing health issues, and the lack of testing and treatment in prisons,” she said.

Professor Bartels said most people who enter prison are un-sentenced and nearly a third are expected to serve less than 12 months.

“Tens of thousands of people are likely to be released into the community by the end of the year, making them potential carriers of Coronavirus back into communities,” she said.


Professor Lorana Bartels
College of Arts & Social Sciences
Australian National University
T: +61 2 6125 1279
M: +61 4139 92523

Professor Thalia Anthony
College of Law
University of Technology Sydney
M: +61 413 992 523

For media assistance, contact the ANU Media Team on +61 2 615 7979 or at

You can read media articles picking up on the open letter here: