The move is likely to prompt an angry reaction from magistrates who fiercely guard their sentencing powers.
It will also be interpreted as a climbdown by the government which introduced suspended sentence orders (SSOs) for summary offences - 'minor' crimes, such as common assault or driving while disqualified, which are heard in the magistrates' court - only two years ago. Under the order an offender receives a custodial punishment if they commit a further crime while the suspended sentence is running.
But the government has been alarmed by the number of times magistrates have used suspended sentences and by how many have been converted into custodial sentences for reoffenders.
A government briefing document leaked to The Observer earlier this year stated: 'The use of SSOs has increased rapidly since introduction in April 2005. Recently around 3,000 per month have been given out by the courts. This is nearly double the number assumed in the latest prison population projections.'
The document, written in 2006, stated that more than 800 people have been sent to prison for breaching their suspended sentence orders between January and August this year, compared with 132 for the whole of 2005. Three-quarters of the orders were issued in magistrates' courts, nearly half for summary offences.
Removing magistrates' powers to hand out SSOs could backfire, experts warned last night. 'There is a real risk that magistrates will use custody instead,' said Harry Fletcher of the probation union, Napo.