Last summer, the Scottish prison population reached an all-time high of more than 8000, while at the same time the crime rate hit a 37-year low.

A superficial reading might lead to the assumption that the two are linked – that having so many criminals behind bars explains the low crime rate – but there is compelling evidence that giving low-level offenders tough community-based sentences instead of short prison sentences significantly cuts their chance of reoffending. Keeping some offenders out of prison, in other words, can help cut crime.

That is why, in February 2011, a presumption against sentences of fewer than three months came into force. In the same spirit, there is now also a case to be made for increasing use of electronic tagging. Evidence from its use in Sweden for nearly two decades shows that if prisoners serving short sentences are kept under house arrest with a tag, their reoffending rate is half that of those serving similar sentences in low security prisons.

The use of electronic tagging in the Scandinavian country is also saving the taxpayer more than £100 a day per prisoner, as the cost of bed and board is borne by the offenders themselves.

Clearly, these considerations have to be balanced against the expectation of victims of crime and the public generally that offenders will be punished. Many still understandably regard prison as the only appropriate sentence, especially where violent or sexual offences are concerned. Sheriffs, meanwhile, may have some misgivings. While tagging is readily used by sheriffs in some areas of Scotland, most notably Dundee, it is hardly used at all in some other areas.

There may be other factors at work. After the Scottish Government's presumption against sentences of three months of less came into force, the number of sentences of more than three months rose, as did the use of remand. The reasons are not clear, but a lack of confidence on the part of sheriffs and judges in the efficacy of community-based sanctions may have been a factor.

In Sweden, the use of electronic tagging is uncontroversial; all offenders sentenced to six months or less, barring those guilty of domestic violence, may apply to serve it under house arrest wearing a tag. Given that could include violent and sexual offenders, if it were introduced in Scotland the criteria for approval of such applications would have to be carefully considered. Effective rehabilitation and treatment programmes would also need to be in place.

Most victims of crime, however, want to be reassured that the perpetrator will not repeat their offence. Putting someone behind bars prevents them from committing a crime, but only for as long as they are incarcerated. The long-term aim of reducing reoffending will require openness to increasing the use of non-custodial sentences.