Up to 22,500 people a year are jailed for petty debt, including a sizeable number for non-payment of television licenses and community charge. In one case, highlighted by the Independent, four children had to be taken into care after their mother was jailed for 28 days for a poll tax debt that she had no funds to pay.
Yesterday Mr Howard announced a review of the powers under which petty debtors and defaulters are jailed. Electronic tagging of minor offenders to enforce house arrest is said to have been considered as one alternative to custody, but the more likely options are community service or supervised payments relevant to a debtor's income.
Mr Howard told a meeting of prison governors and managers yesterday that he shared their concerns that too many defaulters - up to 500 a day - were ending up in prison. "They impose an additional and unwelcome burden on hard pressed local prisons. And the fine is expunged - thereby frustrating the court's intention that the prisoner should pay something back to the community," he said.
He said he was working alongside the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, to look at the powers and procedures available to the court to ensure "that they can enforce payment of fines without resorting to imprisonment save in the most exceptional cases". New guidelines will be issued to magistrates - who have been repeatedly criticised by the High Court for unlawfully jailing debtors - in the spring.
The move was clearly designed to head off governors' concerns about prison overcrowding. The jail population is at record levels of 52,567. And Mr Howard's plans to curtail remission and impose minimum sentences on repeat sex and violent offenders, drug dealers and persistent burglars are expected to raise the population by a further 20,000.
Yesterday probation officers said that while moves to keep debtors out of prison were welcome, Mr Howard was still facing a crisis of jails bursting at the seams and escalating costs. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers said: "The figures do not add up. The costs of Mr Howard new sentencing plans will cost pounds 400m a year to house the extra 20,000 prisoners, while the removal of many short term prisoners will only save about pounds 14m."
Latest Home Office figures showed that of the 1,450 women sent to jail for fine default, one in five had not paid for a television licence and one in three had been fined for prostitution or minor criminal damage. For the 21,000 male fine defaulters, about 40 per cent, had been convicted of motoring offences.