Thousands of offenders could have their past convictions cleared from their record under Government plans.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke plans to reduce the length of time during which job applicants are legally required to disclose past criminal convictions.
Prison terms of up to six months would be spent two years after the end of the sentence, compared with seven years after conviction now, and only jail terms of four years or longer would never be considered spent, compared with all those of 30 months or longer now.
Justice Minister Lord McNally said: "First and foremost, criminals must be suitably punished for their crimes.
"But it is no good for anyone if they go to jail and come out and then can't get an honest job and so turn back to crime again.
"That is why we are bringing forward reforms which will give offenders who have served their sentence a fair chance of getting back on the straight and narrow, while ensuring safeguards are in place to protect the public."
But Paul McDowell, chief executive of the crime reduction charity Nacro, called for the Government to go further.
"These long overdue reforms will significantly help those people who have offended in the past and are now living law-abiding lives," he said.
"Reformed offenders face barriers to employment because of old criminal records hanging around their necks.
"Today's proposed amendments will mean that more people will be able to secure work, give something back to society and lead productive lives."
He went on: "These amendments are a big step in the right direction, and we applaud the Government for making a positive step towards supporting ex-offenders into employment.
"Despite the proposed changes, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act will still present barriers to people who have put their offending behind them, particularly those who have served four or more years in prison.
"We will therefore continue to work with the Government and our partners to secure lasting change."
Currently, under the 1974 Act, a fine is treated as spent five years after conviction; a jail term of up to six months is spent after seven years; a jail term between six and 30 months is spent after 10 years; but a sentence of more than 30 months is never spent.
Under the plans, a fine would be spent one year after being handed down; a jail term of up to six months would be spent two years after the end of the sentence; a jail term between six and 30 months would be spent four years after the end of the sentence; and one of between 30 months and four years would be spent seven years after the end of the sentence.
Only a jail term of more than four years would never be spent.
For young offenders, a fine is currently treated as spent 30 months after conviction; detention of up to six months is spent after three and a half years; detention between six and 30 months is spent after five years; but a sentence of more than 30 months is never spent.
Under the plans, a fine would be spent six months after conviction; detention of up to six months would be spent 18 months after the end of the sentence; detention between six and 30 months would be spent two years after the end of the sentence; and one of between 30 months and four years would be spent three and a half years after the end of the sentence.
But a sentence of more than four years would never be spent.
And all offenders will still always have to declare their previous convictions when applying for jobs in sensitive workplaces such as schools and hospitals or working with vulnerable people, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) added.
The reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 were proposed in an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
Ministers have previously said they are keen to ensure that minor convictions as a juvenile do not blight young people's future prospects.
The previous Labour government had proposed a one-year disclosure period for non-custodial sentences, two years for jail sentences of up to four years, and four years for sentences of more than four years.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust campaign group, also said the Government could go further, "by wiping the slate clean for many young offenders who have committed petty crimes".
It would mean they stood "a better chance of finding honest work and turning their lives around", she said.
But she added the proposals were "a welcome first step to enabling reformed offenders to get a job and lead a law-abiding life on release".
"The 'rehabilitation revolution' depends on getting prisoners into work," she said.
"Not surprisingly, the many people who are unemployed and homeless on leaving prison have a reoffending rate of 74% during the year after custody, compared to 43% with a job and somewhere to live.
"The current law inflicts an enduring punishment of excessively long periods when former offenders must declare their convictions."