Michael Howard committed himself to a major prison-building programme and to scrapping the early release of prisoners on electronic tags if the Tories regain power.
He delivered a scathing attack on Labour failures on law and order, declaring that the "criminal justice system has become overwhelmed by political correctness and paperwork".
The Tory leader also sparked anger by pledging to scale back the recording of the ethnic origin of people stopped and searched by police and promised to give headteachers more powers to exclude unruly pupils.
Mr Howard lambasted Labour for setting an "arbitrary limit" on the prison population of 80,000 and pledged that the Tories would build as many jails as needed.
In a commitment that could land a Tory government with a bill of up to £2bn and increase the prison population from 75,000 to nearly 110,000, he said: "It's not a question of if we build new prisons, it is a question of how many new prisons we build and what kind of prisons they are."
Mr Howard singled out for criticism the home detention curfew scheme, under which nearly 68,000 prisoners have been released early since 1999. He said more than 3,500 crimes, including nine serious sex crimes, had been committed by offenders released on electronic tags in that time.
The Tory leader's onslaught opened a clear dividing line with Labour, which is determined to reduce the jail population by encouraging courts to hand out non-custodial sentences for lower-level offenders.
Speaking in Middlesbrough, Mr Howard said: "I have had enough of the culture of political correctness. Conservatives will stand up for the silent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and pay their dues. The clear distinction between right and wrong has been lost in sociological mumbo-jumbo and politically correct nonsense."
In another provocative move, he said the Tories would reverse the Government's plan to implement the last major recommendation of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. By April it will become compulsory for police to give a receipt to all people they stop in the street in an attempt to combat officers who unfairly target black and Asian people.
Mr Howard said there had been a "dramatic decline" in personal responsibility and he disputed the use of the term "antisocial behaviour" for yobbish activities such as drunkenness, intimidation or overturning litter bins.
"That behaviour is not just antisocial, it's wrong ... and people shouldn't be allowed to get away with it", he said.
"We need a police force which intervenes, confronts and challenges every kind of crime and disorder. In short we need zero-tolerance policing."
He said a Tory administration would introduce "enforceable home-school contracts" that would spell out both parents' and pupils' responsibilities and give heads "complete control over expulsion".
Hazel Blears, a Home Office minister, said Mr Howard should start trying to defend his own record rather than attacking Labour. "Under the Tories crime doubled, and when he was Home Secretary, Michael Howard cut police numbers by 1,100. Now he wants to cut public spending by £20bn and the police will be the first to be hit."
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokes-man, condemned the proposals as "vacuous" and compared them to the views of Alf Garnett.
He said: "Mr Howard's plans to build more prisons will simply not tackle crime, and will only add to the number who re-offend and to the UK's already record prison numbers."
EXPERT VIEWS: 'HE SHOULD NEVER BE PM'
Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote
Over the past 12 months, the Conservatives have come a long way to positively engage with Britain's black communities ... But policies matter too and it's appalling that any party leader should sanction the continuance of the demonisation of black and Asian youth.
Mark Leech, editor of the Prisons handbook
His promise to scrap HDC [early release tagging] would be dangerous for our prisons and I doubt it would be welcomed by prison governors or prison staff.
Frances Crook, director of Howard League for Penal Reform
Michael Howard is repeating his past failures - and we really prefer to see old lags change their ways. Unless he has got something to put in HDC's place, he will create more victims and more crime.
Kevin Curran, GMB union general secretary
This was the day when Michael Howard showed why he should never be prime minister, and I thank him for the confirmation.
Matt O'Connor, Fathers4Justice founder, (on Howard's support for giving parents equal access to children)
We wholeheartedly welcome the Conservatives' important initiative on this issue, in particular their linking of fatherlessness with the explosion in young offending since the introduction of the 1989 Children Act.Reuse content