A Home Office study of 18,000 offenders, the first and largest of its kind, showed that 54 per cent of those sent to jail for a variety of crimes, offended again within two years, compared with 47 of those given community penalties.
The study, Explaining Reconviction Rates, also showed that young people were much more likely to reoffend than older people, and women were far less likely to reoffend then men - 36 per cent committed further crime within two years compared with 57 per cent of men.
The Home Office minister David Maclean said: "This research explodes the myth that community-based sentences have an 80 per cent success rate and that prisons are merely universities of crime. The fact is that there is practically no difference in the reoffending rate."
The minister's assertions were called into question, however, by two other studies - from the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, and the Greater Manchester Probation Service. Their research showed that well-managed and targeted programmes could reduce offending rates by between 20 and 40 per cent.