But ministers soon realised that such sentiment was a vote loser among the public, many of which want to see the reintroduction of the death penalty.
In just seven months the legislation was scrapped and the Government, anxious not to lose law-and-order ground to an increasingly "tougher on crime" Labour front bench, performed a sharp U-turn and started on the "prison works" road now being pursued with all his energy by Michael Howard.
He estimates that his latest overhaul of sentencing policy will add another 10,800 to the prison population.
Probation officers, penal reform groups and others say the real figure is likely to be triple. They claim that by the beginning of the next century, the population behind bars will have soared from the present record level of 53,941 to nearly 90,000. Probation officers argue that 9,000 burglars alone would be propelled into prison. Thousands more would serve longer penalties.
The other huge hike in inmates will come from the loss of remission, outlined in the White Paper. They argue that even under the threat of more limits on their powers, judges are unlikely to make a full discount for loss of remission when they send someone to jail for a new "honest" sentence.
Either way, the plans will lead to a massive prison building programme. As well as the five new jails already in the pipeline, even under Mr Howard's best-case scenario, a further 12 jails each holding 800 prisoners and costing more than pounds 840m to build will be needed. Plus, the Prison Service's annual running costs will top pounds 2bn a year. All the new jails will be built, managed and run by the private sector.
The moves will again thrust the United Kingdom to the top of the European Union league for jailing the most people, although stiffer sentencing policies had recently brought France, Spain, Germany, Italy and others in line, all jailing between 80 and 115 per 100,000 head of population. However, Britain will still be far behind the United States, which jails nearly 2 per cent of its adults.
Yesterday, Mr Howard maintained that his tougher sentences were responsible in part for the last three years' drop in crime levels, but criminologists, probation officers, church leaders, judges and reform groups point to conflicting evidence.
They say unreported crime, greater use of police cautioning and changes in reporting procedures are distorting figures; that research suggests those punished and supervised in the community reoffend less often; and that what deters crime is not the threat of long sentences, but the threat of being caught - and that is where any extra resources should be spent.
They point to the Netherlands which, with a similar crime rate, incarcerates only half the number, enabling families to stay together and offenders to work thus giving stability shown to prevent reoffending. They point to an "inevitable" increase in costly court battles because of a lack of incentive to plead guilty, to the risks of returning the mentally ill to jail and to the risks of encouraging, for example, a rapist to kill his victim because the penalty would be the same whether she dies, or lives to give evidence.
These arguments have been voiced eloquently by many, including Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice. But they have been ignored because they carry little weight with a public which sees itself increasingly at risk of being a victim.
However, pursuing an entirely prison-centred criminal justice policy is not without its risks. The recent return to prison overcrowding, cut- backs in education, regimes and welfare and, in some, squalid conditions provides exactly the same explosive ingredients that sparked the 1990 Strangeways riots in Manchester. We are in danger of coming full circle.Reuse content