Scottish Nationalists were today expected to back a call for prison to be used only for serious offenders while petty criminals are given sentences in the community.
A motion to the SNP annual conference in Aviemore which got under way today says instead of building more jails, the focus should be on tackling criminal behaviour through community-based sentences and addressing social problems like drink, drugs and deprivation.
The motion, in the name of party justice spokesman Kenny MacAskill, is one of the first to be debated at the conference, which was beginning this afternoon.
Speaking before the four-day conference began, SNP leader Alex Salmond said the party's target was to win 20 more first-past-the-post seats at the next Scottish Parliament elections.
He said the party had made "significant electoral progress" over the past year and the "winning habit" would stand it in good stead for the 2007 contest.
The motion on prisons policy says the need for prisons is a "regrettable aspect of society", but argues their use should be restricted in the main to "the protection of society from dangerous offenders and the punishment of serious offences".
Mr MacAskill said: "We are in the shameful position of heading towards having the highest percentage of people in prison in the whole of Europe. Yet we are not by any means bad people. We are no better but no worse than other nations in that regard.
"It is a regrettable fact of life that there is a need for prison in any society. Prison should be a place for serious offences and dangerous offenders.
"In Scotland, prison is full of fine defaulters and many who are victims as much as perpetrators in terms of drink, drugs and deprivation."
He said he regarded assault and breaking into people's houses as serious offences which should be punished with a jail sentence. But he said petty criminals and people who committed minor offences to feed a drink and drug habit were better dealt with outside prison.
"In these cases, it is better for them and cheaper for us to tackle the underlying problems."
Mr MacAskill said jailing offenders for 30 days or less was a waste of time. "There must be a way of addressing their problems, and indeed punishing them, within the community."
And he continued: "We need to recognise that there is a need for prisons, but that too many Scots are in them and too many who are in them should not be addressed there but treated elsewhere."
He said that, despite continual promises, Labour had totally failed to deliver on tackling the causes of crime.
"Individuals need to accept responsibility for their actions. Scotland in turn needs to accept responsibility for all its communities."
Tomorrow, the conference will debate a controversial bid to lift the SNP's boycott of the House of Lords.
© The Scotsman