Justice Secretary Ken Clarke today blamed the popular press for putting thousands of criminals in jail who do not need to be there.
He told MPs that jailing offenders costs £45,000 a time and called for a "more sensible" way of dealing with lower level prisoners, insisting "we can't afford it".
Even right-wing American politicians are now pushing for a reduction in inmates because the prison system is "such appalling value for money", the Conservative told the Commons Justice committee.
Mr Clarke joked that most MPs who served time came out as ardent prison reform campaigners.
He said it is important to get the best value for money in the way that offenders are dealt with.
"First is public satisfaction that justice has been done and there is some retribution but then you do your best to make sure the majority of them are not criminals when they leave," he told MPs.
"The more prisoners you put into overcrowded conditions the more difficult it is to organise all the things we are talking about to deal with rehabilitation, to deal with alcohol problems and to deal with work and training.
"We have seen such a surge in the prison population over the last 15 years it would be really helpful if we could have a bit of a pause in order to address what we can do with the people we have got.
"I put it cautiously because any suggestion that you might have as a main policy reducing the number of prisoners sets off great excitement in parts of the political world.
"The right in America does contain quite a lot of people urging reduction of the prison population.
"I'm not urging that but it would be nice if we could resist some of the pressures we get from the popular press to keep increasing the number that we have in recent years.
"The popular press, I think, are responsible for thousands of people being in prison that not all of them need to be there."