By Ian Dunt
The most senior level of management in the Prison Service has joined calls for an end to short sentences, with the Prison Governors Association saying there are too many people behind bars already.
The demand comes as part of a coordinated campaign to force the government to end short sentences, which campaigners describe as counter-productive and a waste of taxpayers' money.
The campaign was also joined by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) and several penal reform groups.
It comes just days after the new justice secretary, Ken Clarke, muted the possibility of rethinking sentencing policy in the UK.
Penal reform groups have long argued that short sentences are counter-productive, and most empirical data appears to substantiate their claims.
Offenders sent to prison for 12 months or less are twice as likely to reoffend on release compared to offenders who had received a community punishment with a requirement to attend an intensive programme.
Figures released by Napo today showed that of the 55,333 people jailed in 2008 for six months or less, 74% were reconvicted within a short time of release.
Most served on average between six and eight weeks at a cost of £350 million per annum to the Ministry of Justice.
Most penal reform groups cite the high success rates of intensive programmes - and their low cost to the taxpayer - as a clear sign that a root-and-branch re-evaluation of the government's approach to rehabilitation is needed.
"Not only would this option [community programmes] be cheaper, but the reconviction rates would be much lower at 34% on programmes compared with 74% on short-term prison sentences," argued Napo assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher
"It does seem extraordinary therefore that the government is actually cutting probation budgets, which is bound to lead to more, not less, custodial sentences, worse reconviction rates and therefore more victims."
Campaigners sense they may be at a turning point in the debate on penal reform. Mr Clarke's role as justice secretary gave many activists succour, given his social liberalism.
Many groups have also been pleased at the presence of the Lib Dems around the Cabinet table, who have long called for a more empirically-based prison policy.
The deficit also contributes to the debate. With cost-cutting now a near-Biblical mantra in government activists are hoping that the cost-saving available with community sentences might tilt the argument in their direction.
But government ministers who call for a more liberal sentencing policy risk the wrath of tabloid editors - a repercussion which has turned off many home secretaries in the past.
"Short sentences create more crime; they don't create solutions or safety," said Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which has long campaigned for a change in the law.
"Not only are community sentences more effective, they also save money. A year in prison costs the same as a nurse or police officer to the public purse, and a time when we are facing drastic cuts in public services, the public knows that investment in health, education and community safety offers better public protection than another prisoner."
Mr Clarke, who is also lord chancellor, told Sky News last week: " It's not to be soft on sentencing, it's to be sensible on sentencing, and bear in mind everybody who is sent to prison costs more than it costs to send a boy to Eton.
"So, all right, I'm all in favour of spending it when it's effective and justified, and that we will do. And we're looking at sentencing, not starting just from let's have more people in prison, let's have fewer people in prison . but what actually works, because the public are still very, very worried about lawlessness."
The comments instantly landed him in trouble and were seized on by Tory backbenchers during last week's PMQs.