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Emergency release of people from prison because of Covid-19

A brief analysis through an anti-corruption lens

Many countries are implementing emergency releases of people from prison to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Such measures, while critical to public health, can enable the unjust release from prison of politically connected and wealthy individuals convicted of corruption offences. To reduce prison overcrowding while ensuring that white-collar criminals are appropriately sanctioned, one strategy is to impose alternatives to custodial sentences – an approach that could be considered for non-emergency times as well.

Also available in Spanish
21 July 2020
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Main points

  • Emergency prison release mechanisms to prevent the spread of Covid-19 can pose corruption risks due to weak design, uneven implementation, and inadequate oversight.
  • Such releases take three main forms: prisoner amnesties declared by governments; emergency release procedures drafted by governments and implemented by prison directors; and court decisions to release individual prisoners or set out frameworks on who is eligible for release.
  • These emergency procedures can enable the unjust release of politically connected prisoners convicted of corruption offences.
  • To help maintain rule of law during the emergency, alternatives to custodial sentences in line with international standards can be imposed on newly released persons who have been convicted of corruption crimes.
  • Conditions attached to releases can include, among others, status penalties, economic sanctions and monetary penalties, confiscation or expropriation of assets, and restitution or compensation to victims.
  • In non-emergency times, as well, alternatives to custodial sentences can be used to sanction those convicted of corruption crimes as a means to mitigate financial and social damage caused by corruption and reduce prison overcrowding.

Cite this publication

Jennett, V.; (2020) Emergency release of people from prison because of Covid-19. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Brief 2020:11)

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About the author

Victoria Jennett

Dr Victoria Jennett has a 20-year career working for and advising governments, international organisations, and NGOs on how to reform justice systems to prevent corruption and promote human rights. She carries out corruption risk assessments, researches and publishes on corruption and justice issues, and co-teaches the U4 course on corruption in the justice sector.


All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Covid-19, justice sector


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