The prison population has reached a record high of 87,120, according to figures released on Friday by the Ministry of Justice.

But does being tough on crime mean offenders have to go to prison, or are community sentences and reparation actually tougher? And are the latter more effective and less costly ways to reduce crime and reoffending?

A report published last week by independent campaign group Make Justice Work, Community or Custody, said that for persistent low level offending, the answer is yes.

The enquiry team spent a year examining community sentence regimes across the country. It was ‘astonished and impressed by the rigour and impact’ of the work it saw and concluded that alternatives to custody are not a soft option.

One project that it visited was the intensive alternative to custody pilot in Manchester. Available to offenders aged 18-25, the year-long programme mixes demanding community payback, including educational requirements.

A number of those on the programme told the report team that it would have been easier for them to go to prison for a few months and some actually dropped out and were sent to prison.

The programme reduced reoffending levels and cost roughly half the £11,000 cost of sending someone to prison for three months.

The review concluded: ‘Not only have we witnessed programmes delivering real reductions in reoffending. We learnt that in the right circumstances they are able to cut crime at a fraction of the cost of prison.’

Impressive indeed, given statistics from the Prison Reform Trust showing that nearly two-thirds of offenders serving short sentences are reconvicted within a year; and government figures which estimate that the cycle of reoffending costs the economy £7m-£10m a year.

But the Community or Custody report makes it clear that ‘significant upfront investment’ will be required to offer community sentencing regimes that are of sufficient rigour and effectiveness for the public to have confidence in them.

Contrary to what some politicians will have people believe, it seems the public does support the use of community sentences.

A telephone poll of 1,000 people, carried out for Victim Support and the Prison Reform Trust, revealed that 94% want those who have committed offences such as theft or vandalism to be required to do unpaid work in the community as part of their sentence.

Nearly nine out 10 felt that victims of theft and vandalism should be given the opportunity to tell offenders about the harm and distress they have caused.

In short then, Kenneth Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution may not be as unpopular with the voting public as he might fear (and the tabloid press would have you believe).

But as the Community or Custody report stresses: ‘If the government is serious about starting a rehabilitation revolution, corners cannot be cut.’

The questions that remains to be answered are whether the government will adequately fund alternative sentencing programmes and whether courts will use them.