Community sentences 'fail to stop reoffending'
More than three-quarters of criminals sent to prison in England and Wales last year had at least one previous community sentence, figures show.
Ministry of Justice data showed 81,594 of the 107,688 people jailed in 2011-12 had been subject to such a sentence.
A report by campaign group the Centre for Crime Prevention highlights what it sees as the failure of community penalties to stop reoffending.
But prison reform groups maintain the sentences are effective.
Community sentences can include carrying out between 40 and 300 unpaid hours of work, such as removing graffiti, clearing wasteland and decorating public places.
They can also include treatment programmes for drug addiction or mental health conditions.
The MoJ data was obtained by CCP, which campaigns for an evidence-based approach to sentencing and policing, through a Freedom of Information Request.
CCP director Peter Cuthbertson said: "Community sentences fail to protect the public and fail to stop reoffending. Prison works.
"These figures prove that letting thousands of criminals off with one community sentence after another is failing. Stiff prison sentences protect the public and have lower reoffending rates."
The figures also showed 35% of adults given a community sentence reoffend within a year.
Mr Cuthbertson's report said many prisoners were pushed through "a revolving door" of community sentences before finally receiving a custodial sentence.
It says of all the offenders sent to prison in 2011-12, 7,783 people had been given 11 or more community sentences before being sent to prison.
But the Criminal Justice Alliance, a coalition of 70 organisations including campaigning charities, said its research suggested community penalties remained at least 8% more effective than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending.
Director Vicki Helyar-Cardwell said: "We know that reoffending rates for short prison sentences are getting worse, whereas community sentences are improving.
"Community sanctions mean that offenders can begin to deal with issues such as drug and alcohol addictions and make reparation to their community, whilst maintaining links with their families and employment."
And Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said: "If you compare similar offenders with similar offences, you find that community sentences are almost 10% more effective than a short prison sentence at reducing reoffending.
"To cut crime and prevent future victims, respected research shows that it is far better to pay back in the community for harm done than waste time behinds bars."
Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said: "Reoffending rates are unacceptably high - and are currently highest among those sentenced to short prison sentences.
"We are tackling this by changing the way we deal with offenders released after short sentences, so there is greater supervision and rehabilitation.
"Prison does work. But we are toughening up community sentences so every sentence contains a genuine punishment, including fines, unpaid work and strict curfews and exclusion zones - which can be enforced with state-of-the-art GPS tracking."
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling recently unveiled a shake-up of probation services, which will see lower-risk offenders supervised by private firms and charities on a payment-by-results basis.
Prisoners serving sentences under 12 months will also be forced to undertake a period of rehabilitation upon release for the first time.