Under the Tory leader's sentencing policies, burglars would be jailed for at least three years on their third conviction, with no remission. Drug dealers convicted for a third time of selling class A drugs would get a mandatory seven years.
Mr Howard agreed the effect of the policies could drive up the prison population - already more than 74,000, highest in western Europe - by 14,400 by the third year of a Tory government. But he said: "That will send a clear message: if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. The cost to society of failing to take action is far greater than the actual cost of building prisons. That is why a Conservative government will invest in more prison places."
He said the Conservatives would scrap the Government's early-release scheme, requiring all convicts to serve minimum terms, create 20,000 more prison places and increase police numbers by 5,000 a year.
Mr Howard accused the Government of leaving Britain in a "moral quagmire" by failing to draw a clear distinction between right and wrong. He said automatic minimum sentences would be a powerful deterrent to the small percentage of career burglars responsible for most break-ins. "If you take these professional criminals out of circulation, they cannot commit more crime." Launching his party's law and order policy in Darlington, he said sentencing had become a "charade" that had undermined confidence in the criminal justice system when victims saw criminals walking free after serving only half their time, and added that 3,500 offences - including 500 violent crimes - had been committed by prisoners freed early, since introduction of the policy in 1999.
Judges would be instructed to pass minimum and maximum sentences on all offenders and all prisoners would be tested for drugs on arrival.
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Howard's words may sound tough, but he is conning the public by suggesting prison works. With more than half of prisoners reoffending, creating more prisoners will create more criminals."
Paul Cavadino, chief executive of the crime reduction charity Nacro, said: "The proposals are based on the misconception that you are not serving a sentence unless you are behind bars. When offenders are released, they are under supervision and restrictions and that is also part of the sentence."
Labour said the Conservatives' figures show that an extra 20,000 prison places would cost pounds 760m. Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, said: "The Tories cannot say how they would fund this. Labour has already provided 17,000 extra prison places, with 3,000 more opening shortly."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "How could anyone propose building yet more prisons when, of the 13 new prisons opened in the past decade, nine are overcrowded already? There is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody will reduce crime."
w The Conservative Party issued a writ for defamation against The Times yesterday after it refused to apologise for a report claiming that Lynton Crosby, the party's election campaign director, had warned Mr Howard they could not win the general election. The Tories vigorously deny the report.Reuse content