MORE offenders than ever before face tagging rather than jail as the Scottish Government signals "bold" moves to "redefine custody".

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has suggested sophisticated electronic monitoring will increasingly be rolled out as he aims to slash Scotland's unusually high prison population.

Speaking after a visit to look at pioneering efforts to prevent reoffending at Low Moss prison in East Dunbartonshire, Mr Matheson said there was now "common ground" across parties in Holyrood to make sure that jails could focus their efforts on the most troubled and troubling criminals.

But he acknowledged that his predecessors had talked of moving away from prison for two decades without success and that winning public support for policies labelled "soft on crime" in the tabloids would take "communication".

Mr Matheson said: "We need to move away from this idea that we can be 'soft' or 'tough' on justice.

"It is a false dichotomy. We need to be smart about justice. Our priority must be to use evidence-based approaches to create safer communities and reducing re-offending.

"We need to redefine what we mean by custody. I believe there is a greater opportunity to look at using a wider range of technology to address offending behaviour.

"We need to take an imaginative approach to how we use things like electronically monitoring. When we compare it to other jurisdictions, we use it in a very unsophisticated manner. I want to see us using electronic monitoring to allow us to develop an alternative to custody.

"There are three factors that drive the risk of somebody committing an offence: lack of employment, lack of housing and family breakdown.

"Yet one of the things we do when someone gets a short-term sentence is break all of these things, take people away from their jobs, their homes and their families."

Mr Matheson's government within weeks is expected to respond to its own consultation on a potential presumptions against locking anyone up for less than a year. Academics and jailers agree such sentences are rarely of any use: they are too short to allow for rehabilitation but long enough to disrupt home live and create the climate for reoffending.

The justice secretary did not give away what that announcement will be but was clear he saw the disadvantages of short jail sentences.

He said: "They take up a tremendous amount of resource and we know they are not an effective way of promoting desistance. Our decisions have to be based on evidence."

Scotland currently locks up more of its population than any other major country in western Europe bar England. As of Friday there were 7661 prisoners in the country. Scotland's incarceration rate, according to the most recent international study, has now edged higher than Spain's and is nearly three times that of neighbouring Nordic countries. Only 309 people are on tagged on home detention curfews through the Scottish Prison Service

Last year courts across Scotland issued more than 1000 restriction of liberty orders - another way of tagging offenders who are not jailed, according to electronic monitoring firm G4S.

Mr Matheson - without given any specific targets - made it clear he expected to be judged on his ability to move such numbers. He said: "We have a prison population that is too large, the second largest in western Europe. We need to take a range of actions in order to deal with that. I have a trail of work in place to make progresses and will be setting that out in more detail in a couple of weeks.

"There has been a lot of talk over the last 20 years about reforming penal policy and some of that has already happened but it has not delivered better outcomes in the way which I believe it should.

"This is an area that is a true priority. During my time as justice secretary I want to see real progress.

"Our view of custody has not changed in the last 200-300 years."

Mr Matheson stressed the importance of new partnerships in jail to rehabilitate offenders before and after they are in jail. This includes The Freedom Bakery, a social enterprise making artisan bread at Low Moss, that now plans to open a Glasgow outlet where ex-offenders can seamlessly continue to use skills learned in prison.