Too many people in Britain are being sent to prison when they could be given community punishments or put in rehabilitation, the lord chief justice warned today.
Lord Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said courts should not send people to prison unless they really have to.
The "sensible place" to rehabilitate offenders was in the community, he told The Guardian - although he stressed that this kind of sentencing would only be accepted by the public if it involved "significant punishment".
England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe at 143 per 100,000 of the population, according to the Prison Reform Trust, compared to just 88 per 100,000 in France and 97 per 100,000 in Germany.
In March this year, the prison population stood at just over 77,000, an increase of 2,600 on the previous year and 25,000 in the past decade. At the end of December 2004, just under 16,000 prisoners were forced to share cells.
Lord Philips told the newspaper that while prison was obviously the right punishment for the most dangerous criminals, it was not somewhere for people with mental health problems. Increasing hospital beds for them would both improve their treatment and reduce overcrowding, he said.
He also warned that people with drug addictions were better served by a community sentence, although this required "much better" rehabilitation facilities.
"It should not be necessary to commit an offence in order to get drug treatment. I am afraid the reality in many parts of the country is that it is," he said.
Judges who sent people to jail for two weeks, what he described as a "touch of prison", made life impossible for people trying to run prisons, Lord Philips added.
The lord chief justice's comments will be welcomed by prison campaigners, who argue that it is impossible to rehabilitate prisoners properly when they are held in overcrowded prisoners. They point to the reoffending rate of 60 per cent as evidence of their case.
Responding, a Home Office spokeswoman said the government had taken action to provide judges with several alternatives to sending people to prison - the Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced sentences including unpaid work, drug treatment and curfews.
"We believe that constructive community sentences can play an important role in reducing re-offending among less serious offenders," she said.
"However imprisonment should continue to be used to protect the public from the most serious offenders - those who are violent, dangerous or seriously persistent."