The prison population in Belgium has dropped below 10,000 since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, according to the federal justice ministry.
Nonetheless, the total number of people in prison at 9,870 still exceeds the country’s maximum capacity of 9,500, the prisons authority said.
A major reason for the reduction in the prison population is the cut in prison sentences sought at trial by prosecutors, although nothing has been done to reduce the prison sentences sought for defendants found guilty of crimes relating to terrorism or sex crimes, as well as anyone facing a sentence of five years or more.
Prisoners who have already qualified for a penitentiary leave are now eligible for early release to ease the pressure on prison numbers, as are those who are at more risk of being infected with the coronavirus because of their age or medical history.
However the justice ministry was keen to point out that the more relaxed regime does not apply to anyone convicted of serious crimes. And prisoners considered for early release can, in any case, be recalled to serve their whole original sentence if circumstances demand.
Meanwhile, alternative measures such as electronic surveillance are increasingly being used, both for those who have already been convicted and for whose who are still awaiting trial.
The numbers are expected to go down by up to 150 in the coming days, when a provision is published which would allow the liberation on licence of anyone with six months or less of a sentence still to serve.