Mr Barns’ proposal includes releasing elderly prisoners jailed for historical sex offences and fitting them with electronic bracelets to be monitored in home detention.
Decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis and he acknowledged some prisoners would be deemed too dangerous, while suitable candidates might be homeless.
“No one is suggesting having these people released into the community, but we need to make use of home accommodation,” he said.
“If prisons need to get creative about acquiring properties then so be it. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
In Iran, prisons have released thousands of inmates to reduce overcrowding, while British authorities are considering early release dates to ease the pressure on the system. The suspension of face-to-face family visits sparked riots in Italian prisons.
Visitors are still permitted at Victorian jails, but have been told to stay away if they have flu-like symptoms.
One lawyer told The Age “everyone is legitimately terrified” of what an outbreak in prison would mean.
Mr Barns said banning visits by family, friends and counsellors would be “a recipe for a serious amount of agitation”. Locking inmates up for 22-24 hours daily was intolerable, he added.
A government spokeswoman said they were taking advice from the experts, including the Chief Health Officer, Justice Health and Corrections Victoria.
“Corrections Victoria has established processes for preventing and managing communicable diseases in custody, including isolation protocols,” she said.
The Magistrates Court of Victoria introduced measures to decrease the number of people attending courthouses across the state on Wednesday.
People on bail will not have to front court for three months after being charged, and those on summons will not have to appear in court for five months.
Lawyers also expect a surge in bail applications as accused criminals argue they should be released because of the risk of contracting coronavirus while they await trail. No new trials are starting in Victoria.
Former chief magistrate Nick Papas, QC, said the suspension of trials would affect the justice system for months, but courts had to continue functioning.
“I consider the courts to be an essential service, obviously not on the same scale as a hospital, but as a basic fundamental fabric of a society which requires the management of people’s behaviour,” he said.
“The courts just can’t be let to close completely.”
Adam Cooper joined The Age in 2011 after a decade with AAP. Email or tweet Adam with your news tips.
Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.