Custodial sentences of less than a year should be scrapped, a meeting of jail governors was told.
The Prison Governors Association was asked to back a motion at its annual conference that condemned the rise in the jail population to record levels. It called for ministers to launch a "radical review" of sentencing policy and scrap all jail terms shorter than 12 months.
Prisoner numbers in England and Wales passed 84,000 for the first time at the start of August. On Friday, there were 84,354 in custody, despite about 2,500 inmates being released more than two weeks early every month. Ministers have pledged to increase prison capacity to 96,000 by 2014. Critics say short jail sentences are ineffective at reforming criminals and should be abolished in favour of community punishments.
The association's national executive committee proposed the motion and said that the rise in the prison population was "a failure of penal policy".