Prison is not working for thousands of criminals, the Justice Secretary has declared, as he set out the case for scrapping short jail sentences.
David Gauke called for a more “imaginative” approach to crime and punishment, with greater focus on rehabilitation in the community.
He said there is a “very strong case” to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some “closely defined exceptions”, such as for violent and sexual crimes.
Short custodial terms would be replaced by “robust” community orders under Mr Gauke’s blueprint.
His comments provide the clearest indication yet of the Government’s intention to move away from the Tory mantra of “prison works”.
In a speech in central London, the cabinet minister set out his vision for “smart justice”.
He said: “I think now is the time for us as a society, as a country, to start a fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times.
“I know that there will be some who argue that the only problem with our criminal justice system is that it isn’t tough enough, that the answer to short sentences is longer sentences, that the best way of stopping recently released prisoners from re-offending is not to release them.
“And that the endless ratchet effect of higher sentences is giving the public what it wants.
“But I believe that those in positions of responsibility have a duty to show leadership.”
The Tories’ approach to sentencing has been analysed against the “prison works” doctrine since former home secretary Michael Howard used the phrase 25 years ago.
Mr Gauke cited figures showing that, in the last five years, just over a quarter of a million custodial sentences have been given to offenders for six months or less, while more than 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less.
But, he said, nearly two thirds of those handed the punishments go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released.
Shoplifting is the most common crime attracting sentences of under six months, with around 11,500 such cases a year.
Mr Gauke said: “For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.
“That’s why there is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place, a robust community order regime.”
He said all options were being explored to bring about the shift, including legislation.
While the case for reform is seen as strongest in relation to sentences of six months or less, ministers will also look at the impact of a “presumption” against sentences of a year or less in Scotland.
The number of offenders given community sentences has fallen in recent years, prompting suggestions that judges and magistrates lack confidence in them following concerns over probation arrangements.
The Government has already taken a number of steps to improve the management of convicts away from prison.
At the weekend, Mr Gauke announced the roll-out of GPS tagging technology to allow 24/7 monitoring of thousands of offenders in the community.
New arrangements to loosen some of the barriers to releasing some prisoners on temporary licence are also being trialled.
Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Wera Hobouse welcomed Mr Gauke’s remarks on short sentences but accused the Government of “saying one thing and doing another”.
“Even as he makes that admission, his Tory colleagues at the Home Office are busy introducing more short prison sentences in their Offensive Weapons Bill,” she said.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The justice secretary is establishing a reputation as a thoughtful, balanced policy thinker, driven by evidence not preconception.”