Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, also criticised probation workers for sending criminals on 'foreign holidays' as part of their treatment and said this would be outlawed in future.
As the Independent revealed earlier this month, legislation is to be introduced to make community service, parole and probation more of a 'punishment'. The Home Office is planning to impose strict work targets and jail offenders who repeatedly break the rules.
Speaking at the Central Probation Council's annual conference in London, Mr Howard said the public was being given the impression that non-custodial community sentences were a 'soft option'.
The probation service yesterday said the initiative was a backward step and would lead to more people being locked up and greater crime.
Mr Howard said: 'It is an essential part of the Government's wider strategy for criminal justice to ensure that both the courts and the wider public have confidence in community sentences. Confidence in them as punishment.'
The Home Secretary said foreign holidays for offenders had eroded public confidence in the work of the probation service and he had asked the service to ensure that criminals are no longer sent on trips abroad. His comments followed a public outcry when a young offender was taken on an African safari trip after being sent to a home for problem teenagers by social services officials.
'Nothing is more likely to erode public confidence in probation work than the suspicion that community sentences are a soft option. Or the belief that offenders are given privileged access to opportunities which law- abiding members of the community cannot afford,' Mr Howard added.
The Home Office is to issue new national standards for community sentences which will place stringent constraints on the number of warnings given before action is taken. Offenders who breach the regulations will be returned to court or prison.