Thieves and fraudsters should be spared jail, with prison sentences reserved for the most serious crimes, a legal expert has said.
Law professor Andrew Ashworth said prison, as the UK's most severe punishment, should only be used for the most serious crimes including those of a violent, threatening or sexual nature.
But for "pure property offences", including theft, handling of stolen goods, criminal damage and fraud, imprisonment is disproportionate and the priority should be on making sure victims are compensated and that perpetrators make amends, he said.
Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, has produced a pamphlet titled What If Imprisonment Were Abolished For Property Offences?, released by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
The Howard League plans to distribute the pamphlet to every magistrates' court in England and Wales in a bid to spark a debate on sentencing issues.
Prof Ashworth said while prison should still be considered in cases of robbery, blackmail and burglary, its use is disproportionate for crimes that do not involve violence, threats or sexual assault.
He said fines and community sentences would be more effective and proportionate and would benefit victims more, as they are less likely to get compensation from someone behind bars with little or no income.
According to Prof Ashworth, although there may be some exceptions, a prison sentence is only truly worth considering where a victim is targeted because of their vulnerability. He also rejected the idea that those who continually commit property offences should eventually be imprisoned because the offence is still non-violent, non-threatening and non-sexual.
The effect of such a policy would be profound, he said, significantly reducing the prison population and saving millions of pounds each year.
According to the pamphlet, 20,000 people go to prison each year for theft or handling stolen goods, 5,000 for fraud and 1,000 for criminal damage.
Giving people who commit these crimes financial penalties to compensate victims and community sentences rather than custody would reduce the number of men serving prison sentences by 8% (5,000 men) and women by 21% (700 women), saving around £230 million each year, the pamphlet claims.
Prof Ashworth said: "We should be reserving our most severe form of punishment for our most serious types of offending.
"Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?
"Instead, the priority should be to deal with such offences in the community, giving precedence to compensation or reparation for the victim and, where the offence is sufficiently serious, imposing a community sentence."
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "When it comes to crimes like theft and fraud, victims are losing out from a justice system that too often prioritises putting the perpetrator behind bars rather than returning people's stolen property and providing much-needed compensation.
"This can be achieved through fines and compensation orders, as well as community sentences, which produce a much lower rate of reoffending than prison at a fraction of the cost.
"At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it's time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison."
A spokesman for Victim Support said: "Victims tell us they want more than anything else the punishment to fit the crime and for the criminal not to re-offend.
"A community sentence may be appropriate in some instances of property crime but not in others because crime type is not a reliable indicator of the impact an offence has on an individual victim.
"It would be hard for community sentences to retain public confidence if offenders knew they could keep committing certain types of crime and never be jailed.
"It is essential when passing sentence that judges and magistrates can take into account the full facts of the case - including the impact on the victim - not just the nature of the offence."Suggest a correction