Regional governments can choose to pardon prisoners whose sentences are due to finish over the winter. The idea is to lift the emotional burdern on prisons over the holidays, which a Justice Ministry spokewoman said can be a “particularly difficult” time.
Prison chaplain Friedemann Preuß said the annual gesture was an act of magnanimity. “There's a lot of suffering,” he said. Many prisoners spend the time leading up to Christmas wishing for a perfect family, he added. “It depresses the mood, the spirit.”
In order to qualify, prisoners must have a proven track record of good behaviour and not currently be the subject of any criminal investigations.
Further criteria for early release include not having served time for violent crimes, terrorist activity, theft or drug offences, wrote the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper on Sunday.
However, prisoners must also agree to going home early. Often they refuse the offer because they are reluctant to be released for the festive season, especially when no relatives or loved-ones are waiting for them, said a spokeswoman from Rhineland-Palatinate Justice Ministry.
This year, North Rhine-Westphalia has released the highest number of prisoners and has set 710 people free since November 7. In second place is Hesse, where between 150 and 200 inmates have been let out early to celebrate Christmas.
Only Saxony and Bavaria have refused to keep the generous tradition, arguing that it is not fair on the other prisoners.
“A Christmas amnesty arbitrarily favours prisoners whose sentence happens to end around Christmas time,” said Beate Merk, Baviarian Justice Minister from the Conservative Christian Socialist Union (CSU). Early release had nothing to do with the time of year, added Merk, a position the regional opposition have described as heartless.
Those remaining behind bars over Christmas in Germany typically mark the occasion with church services, skat tournaments or barbecues. One prison, the JVA Castrop-Rauxel near Dortmund in west Germany, even hosts a Christmas market.