Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke has insisted his plans to overhaul sentencing have the full backing of Prime Minister David Cameron and the Cabinet.
Kenneth Clarke rejected criticisms that his proposals were “soft”
He is preparing to put forward a bill next month intended to reduce the number of criminals being imprisoned and curb reoffending.
His proposals include larger sentence discounts for early guilty pleas, limiting remands to prison and diverting the mentally ill to healthcare facilities rather than jail.
But the Justice Minister has come under pressure in recent weeks for advocating shorter prison sentences, more community-based punishments and rehabilitation – proposals that some have criticised as “soft”.
And shadow prisons minister Helen Goodman said the proposals were being driven by “cutting costs” rather than “protecting the public’s safety”.
“Instead of building a credible strategy for reducing crime and bringing down re-offending, it seems that swift cuts to prison numbers to save money is driving the Tory-led Government’s criminal justice policies,” she said.
It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers’ money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up
Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke
Mr Clarke acknowledged the current community punishments were weak but said he planned to ensure offenders would be made to do eight hours unpaid work a day.
“I want them to be more punitive, effective and organised,” he told The Times newspaper.
“Unpaid work should require offenders to work at a proper pace in a disciplined manner rather than youths just hanging around doing odd bits tidying up derelict sites.”
Mr Clarke said the current rate of jail sentencing was “financially unsustainable”.
“It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers’ money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up.”
It is expected a total of 6,450 prison places will be saved under his proposals, leading to a prison population in England and Wales that is about 3,000 lower than today’s near-record levels of more than 85,000 people.
Mr Clarke also said prisons were bad at preventing reoffending, with 50% of prisoners committing another offence within a year of release.
He claimed this was not the best way to deal with those who might stop offending if their drug and alcohol abuse problems were tackled.