Britain's first senior black bishop has fiercely criticised David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, over his "simplistic" demands for longer jail sentences and plans for a rigid system of sentences for murder.
The Right Rev John Sentamu, the Bishop of Birmingham, called last night for a new "restorative justice" approach to crime and punishment, helping bring offenders and victims together to produce "truth and reconciliation".
But the Home Office said Mr Blunkett made no apology for introducing tough new penalties for the most serious offenders - and insisted he was committed to "innovative alternatives" to jail.
Taking a swipe at the Home Secretary's advocacy of the "theories and practices of retributive justice", Dr Sentamu said it was damaging the wider community. "We should be concerned at the steady increase in the levels of incarceration and imprisonment, the simplistic approach favoured by successive governments.
"Just as in the Eighties, it was suggested interest rates were being used as a one-club strategy to control the economy, so imprisonment is the one-club strategy employed by successive home secretaries in dealing with the problem of rising crime.
"Where is the room for penitence, reparation, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, charity or reconciliation?"
In the annual Longford lecture, sponsored by The Independent, he added: "I understand all politicians have, at heart, a desire to provide a safer society, but locking so many people up seems to suggest they also want to claim to 'walk the walk' after trying to out-tough one another in their policies on criminal justice.
"The constant fear of appearing to be weak on crime means our prisons are full to bursting as a result of politicians' fear of being labelled the 'criminals' friend'. But this solution isn't working."
He said imprisoning more criminals was "ineffective, inappropriate and expensive" and did very little to tackle the roots of the offending.
Dr Sentamu backed Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who has questioned the Government's planned changes to the criminal justice system. He argued that moves to create a Sentencing Guidelines Council flew in the face of separate plans to introduce mandatory sentences for murder convictions. He said: "How can sentences for all crimes be consistent? Each crime is different."
Arguing for the "restorative justice" approach, he said: "It shows that when we look at the world around us and say 'we cannot go on as we are' that there are alternatives waiting to be tried and tested if only we had the courage and the trust to try them. Our need for 'monsters' must not drive a system of justice. In the rush to redress the balance that has left victims' needs ignored for so long, we mustn't now ignore the needs of the offender."
A Home Office spokesman said the bishop's criticisms appeared "based on misleading press reports rather than the Home Secretary's own words and actions over the past two years". He continued: "The Home Secretary is developing a range of innovative alternatives to custody through the Criminal Justice Bill and has consistently stood up for the principle that for first-time, non-violent offenders robust community sentences are the most appropriate and effective way to reduce reoffending.
"We make no apology for the Government's stand on tougher sentences for the most serious and dangerous offenders. It is only through ensuring the public are confident the criminal justice system will deal effectively with the most dangerous murderers, sex offenders and other serious criminals can we engage people in a sensible debate about radical and robust alternatives to custody for less serious offenders."