Justice secretary David Gauke has been praised for the leadership he has shown on prisons, as the son of a policeman today repeated calls for the need to focus on rehabilitation to reduce reoffending. Prison reform group Howard League for Penal reform welcomed the statement, describing it as 'politically brave but absolutely right'. 

A quarter of a century after Michael Howard, then home secretary, told his party that 'prison works', Gauke told The Telegraph that this is no longer the case with short sentences.

'It's disruptive for the offenders but not in a way that helps them to rehabilitate. And it's disruptive to prisons, takes huge amounts of officer time dealing with people coming in and out of prison, when that time would be better devoted to rehabilitating those who are in prisons for a longer period of time,' Gauke told the newspaper. 

He added that the mood within his party had changed on prisons. He told the paper: 'Colleagues from all parts of the Conservative party - not every colleague, but most of my colleagues - say that this is the right approach, that we have got to focus on rehabilitation.'

Prison reform has been a top priority for the justice secretary since he took office in January. In his first major speech on prison reform, to the Royal Society of Arts in London, he stressed that offenders 'go to prison as punishment, not for punishment' and that prisons should become 'places of humanity, hope and aspiration'.

Earlier this week he told a Centre for Social Justice event that 'too many people go to prison for prolific petty crime. Too many leave with little or no skills. Too many return to chaotic lives where families struggle. There is no easy answer to what is a broader social problem but we can build on what we know works'.

He said short sentences should be imposed only 'where absolutely appropriate, given the evidence that those on community sentences are less likely to offend'. Instead, more community sentences should be handed down. 'Because I believe that holistic and effective community provision can help offenders to break the cycle of criminality by making sure that they get proper treatment - whether that is for a substance misuse problem or a mental health condition - as well as accessing employment support,' Gauke said.

Community sentences have fallen sharply in England, in contrast to other UK jurisdictions. Research by the Centre for Justice Innovation, a justice thinktank, tentatively concludes a link between the decline and the fall in pre-sentence reports.

Commenting on today's interview, Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League, said: 'David Gauke’s call for less use of prison is politically brave but absolutely right. The failed policy of allowing the number of people behind bars to grow unchecked while starving prisons of resources has fed more crime and led to record levels of violence and self-injury. Bold but sensible steps to ease pressure on prisons will make people safer, not only in the jails themselves but also in the community.'