Senior judge calls for 'tough community penalties' to tackle prison population
More criminals could be punished without being jailed, a senior judge has suggested.
The Lord Chief Justice warned the prison population is "very, very high" and there are concerns that it could rise further still.
Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd told MPs more could be done to explore non-custodial options for some offenders.
His comments come as prisons in England and Wales endure a hugely turbulent period.
Earlier this month thousands of officers stopped work amid claims the system was "in meltdown" following a rise in violence and self-harm behind bars.
Campaigners have repeatedly warned about overcrowding - while last week, former justice secretary Michael Gove warned that too many people are being sent to prison.
Mr Gove said the Government should be working "overtime" to reduce the size of the jail population, which stands at just over 85,000.
Appearing at the Commons Justice Committee, Lord Thomas said there is an "awful lot we can do to avoid sending certain people to prison".
He said: " I think there's a lot more we should be doing to explore non-custodial options.
"The prison population is very, very high at the moment. Whether it will continue to rise is always difficult to tell but there are worries that it will.
"I'm not sure that at the end of the day we can't dispose of more by really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties."
Last week, up to 10,000 prison officers stopped work in protest after talks with the Government over health and safety concerns broke down.
The Prison Officers Association directed members t o take action amid surging numbers of assaults on staff, as well as high-profile incidents such as the escape of two inmates who were later recaptured.
And fresh controversy erupted when photos emerged apparently showing inmates eating steaks and takeaways.
In a speech last week, Mr Gove said effective rehabilitation was impossible as long as prisons remained overcrowded and underfunded.
He said: "The problem - in a nutshell - is that we have a system operating at practically full capacity with nowhere near enough flexibility to devote the time, care and attention needed to secure successful rehabilitation.
"It is an inconvenient truth - which I swerved to an extent while in office - that we send too many people to prison.
"And of those who deserve to be in custody, many, but certainly not all, are sent there for too long."