SCOTLAND should scrap prison sentences of under one year in a radical justice overhaul that would instead see thousands of criminals punished in the community, expert bodies have said.

Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons is among dozens of authoritative groups - including penal reform charities, councils, social workers and a former Director of Judicial Studies - who have called for a more liberal approach to custodial sentences in a bid to cut reoffending rates and drive down the number of people behind bars.

The emerging coalition urging the rethink of sentencing policy emerged following a Scottish Government consultation on extending an existing presumption against three month sentences, which was pushed through in 2010.

The current policy, intended to end a custodial "revolving door", has failed to reduce the country's prison population, which remains among the highest in Western Europe suggesting the directive is routinely ignored in courtrooms.

Striking the right balance on sentencing

Advocates of radical action believe that short jail sentences are counterproductive, prove hugely expensive and increase reoffending rates because prisoners lose housing, benefits and often their personal relationships.

Sheriff Frank Crowe, a former prosecutor and ex-Director of Judicial Studies, said that Scotland's incarceration figures remained too high and a 12 month tariff was needed to send a clear signal that prison sentences meted out under summary powers - used to deal with less serious offences with a maximum jail term of one year - should be a last resort.

David Strang, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland and a former senior police chief, described the number of convicts in Scotland's jails as "unhelpful and unnecessary".

He said a presumption against sentences up to 12 months would help reduce a "churn" in the prison population, adding that international evidence suggested that jail was most effective when reserved for criminals whose offences were so severe that "no other form of punishment is appropriate".

Around 8,000 people are detained in Scottish jails every day, a figure which has surged since the 1990s.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the total equates to 142 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, compared to 100 in France, 80 in Ireland, 76 in Germany and 55 in Sweden. Around two thirds of custodial sentences are for six months or less.

Among those backing a new year-long tariff were Edinburgh, Aberdeen and West Lothian Councils, Social Work Scotland, the Scottish Association of Social Work, eight Community Justice Authorities, Women For Independence, conflict reduction organisation SACRO and rehabilitation charity Apex Scotland.

Lisa Mackenzie, Policy and Public Affairs Adviser for the Howard League for Penal Reform Scotland, called on the Scottish Government to "act now" to shift emphasis and resources from custody to community-based sentences.

She said: "We welcome the fact that there is an emerging consensus for extending the presumption to prison sentences of 12 months or less. The presumption against custodial sentences of three months or less has been in place for almost five years and has failed to have any significant impact on the size of Scotland's prison population. Short prison sentences rarely address the causes of crime and disrupt family life, employment and housing arrangements – all factors that reduce the risk of someone reoffending on release."

NHS Health Scotland, which backed a presumption against sentences of up to nine months, said: "Fewer short sentences, and fewer repeated sentences for individuals would save the public purse, would be more effective in delivering the aims of reducing re-offending and protecting community safety, and would save lives."

However, previous efforts at reform has been met by resistance with opponents claiming they could aid perpetrators of sexual crimes or domestic abuse. In 2010, the SNP, then a minority administration, was forced to water down its plans from six months to three in order to win enough support for the measure.

Michael Matheson, the justice secretary, has signalled that he is willing to go further after stating his intention to build "the most progressive justice system in Europe".

Belgium recently banned jail sentences of under one year while in Germany, sentences of up to 12 months are suspended.

While over half of the groups publicly responding to the consultation backed the presumption against sentences up to one year with most others supporting an extension to six or nine months, Victim Support Scotland said it was not convinced that a law change would prove effective.

It added: "It should be recognised that victims can often benefit from a custodial sentence being passed, mainly through the protection that this provides them from the offender."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said responses to the consultation were being considered and that it would set out its plans for strengthening the presumption against short sentences in "due course".