Jail sentences of six months or less for most crimes could be scrapped to alleviate pressure on the system, the prisons minister has suggested.
Some 30,000 criminals per year in England and Wales, including burglars and most shoplifters, could be spared jail under the proposals, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Exceptions would be made for violent or sex offenders, Rory Stewart told the paper.
Mr Stewart said the move would ease pressure on prisons and that “very short” jail terms were “long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you”.
“They come (into prison), they meet a lot of interesting characters (to put it politely) and then you whap them on to the streets again.
“The public are safer if we have a good community sentence… and it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, told the paper ministers “should be congratulated for having the political courage to start the debate”.
Since the early 1990s, the prison population has doubled, rising from around 40,000 to more than 80,000 in 2018, official figures show.
Prison population in 2018
More than half of the 86,275 offenders sentenced to immediate custody in England and Wales in 2017 were handed sentences of six months or less, according to a Parliamentary response from Mr Stewart to shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon last month.
The Telegraph said Mr Stewart cited research indicating that criminals given short jail terms were more likely to re-offend than those given community sentences.
In Scotland, where judges are guided by a legal presumption against sentences of less than six months, re-offending rates are said to have fallen to their lowest levels for nearly two decades.
According to the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, a shift to greater use of community sentences has contributed to a 19-year low in the re-conviction rate north of the border.
The Scottish Government is due to extend the presumption against short prison sentences to 12 months in a drive to further reduce re-offending and keep crime down.
In relation to England and Wales, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “As we have said previously, short sentences are too often ineffective, provide little opportunity to rehabilitate offenders and lead to unacceptably high rates of re-offending.
“That’s why we are exploring potential alternatives but this work is ongoing and we have reached no conclusions at this time.”