Scotland's justice system will undergo an unprecedented shift away from prisons and towards rehabilitating offenders in the community as part of a package of measures designed to cut the jail population.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said the move would reduce the damaging effects of prison on the lives of those given short sentences.

It is also expected to free up jails to do more effective work with those serving longer terms for more serious crimes.

“We have to challenge the idea that the only real punishment is prison," Mr Matheson said. "We have to move beyond bricks and mortar.”

As part of the Scottish Government’s programme announced last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a presumption against short sentences would be extended to include any sentences of less than 12 months. The use of community sentences and electronic tagging would also be expanded.

In a statement to MSPs giving further details of the plans, Mr Matheson outlined a series of measures. They include:

*Two new community custody units for low-risk female prisoners are to be built – one in Maryhill, Glasgow and one in Dundee.

*Courts are to get new powers to use electronic monitoring or ‘tagging’ as part of a community sentence.

*A presumption against sentences below a year will not begin until the Domestic Abuse Bill, which safeguards victims, has been passed by parliament

*Courts will be required to automatically consider imposing a non-harassment order in cases where someone is convicted of a domestic abuse offence.

Mr Matheson said there was overwhelming evidence from within the UK and internationally that short sentences were likely to leave many offenders more liable to reoffend, risking disruption to income or benefits, housing, family and jobs. Payback schemes and rehabilitation in the community are likely to be more effective, he said.

“There will always be cases where the court rightly takes the view that a prison sentence is absolutely justified, but for those who do end up in custody, we must think beyond bricks and mortar,” he said.

He claimed more than half of those released from a prison sentence of 12 months or less are convicted again within a year, while only one-third of those who have served a community sentence are found guilty of a further offence.

He praised the efforts of prison staff but said it was all but impossible to do effective rehabilitation work with someone jailed for less than a year.

The prison population has increased by one-third since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, despite a 41 per cent fall in recorded crime, he said. Mr Matheson added: “Over the past decade this Government has taken steps to end our reliance on custody and move towards effective community sentences which evidence shows are more effective at reducing reoffending and thus reducing the risk of further victims.”

He said 88 per cent of respondents to a public consultation on using more electronic “tagging” of prisoners had backed extending its use , including using GPS technology, and using electronic monitoring to help protect women and children affected by domestic abuse. Mr Matheson said tagging could be used to enforce curfew conditions could help those whose offending is part of a chaotic lifestyle.

Elements of the plans were welcomed by Shadow Justice Secretary Liam Kerr. However, he said community sentences needed to be robust and properly funded.

The Tory MSP said: “Once again the SNP have shown that they would rather empty prisons than keep the public safe.

“As early as next year judges will have their hands tied, and we’ve seen in the statistics already that criminals who may have committed crimes as serious as homicide and sexual assault could escape a jail term.

“It is difficult to understand how the Cabinet Secretary can call the current system of community sentences 'robust', and 'effective' when a third of Community Payback Orders are never even completed, and some offenders are waiting over a year for their work placement to begin.

“The Cabinet Secretary must ensure there is adequate work and purposeful activity in prisons – and reverse his government’s 300,000 hours cut in the last two years.”