In a counter-offensive clearly aimed at Lord Woolf, the judge who attacked the 'get-tough' policy on Tuesday, Mr Major accepted that prison was expensive and prisoners often re-offended.
But he said: 'Those who make such points must not miss two simple facts. First, while criminals are in prison they cannot commit crimes; and second, the existence of prison, as a sanction against criminals, deters many others from committing crimes.
'In short, prison does work,' Mr Major said at the International Police Exhibition and Conference at the Barbican, London.
In a critical speech on Tuesday night, Lord Woolf, a Law Lord with a liberal reputation, said reforms enacted after his Strangeways report and in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act were being reversed.
While not mentioning Lord Woolf expressly, the Prime Minister went on to dismiss the judge's suggestion that money spent on jails could be better spent on crime prevention such as ensuring that cars can be immobilised and fining people for failing to protect their property.
The Prime Minister said: 'I reject outright any proposal that would penalise the victims of crime rather than the criminal. We need to consider victims more, not less.'
John Stevens, the chief constable of Northumbria, told the conference proposals to send persistent young offenders to secure establishments would be cheaper than leaving them to re-offend.
He said studies by his force had shown the comparative costs of custody and community punishments. One persistent young criminal, 'offender X', was arrested 10 times and committed 125 crimes over a six-month period. While it would have cost an estimated pounds 36,000 to keep him in secure accommodation, the cost of his criminality was believed to be pounds 72,850, based on property stolen and costs to the justice system.
Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, also supported the Government's proposals and said he disagreed with much of Lord Woolf's criticism because the judge had been looking at it from the narrow perspective of prison.Reuse content