Labour would be wrong to think the public want softer sentences, a former lord chancellor has warned after shadow cabinet minister Baroness Chakrabarti said the party was no longer in the "arms race" for who could appear toughest on crime.
In the latest sign of division within Labour ranks on justice policy, former minister Lord Falconer said the electorate would not support reducing the severity of sentences for sexual, violent and drug-related offences which have made up the bulk of the increase in the prison population.
He said public attitudes towards crime had led to the tougher rhetoric from politicians during the 1990s, when Tony Blair declared in opposition that Labour would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" and then-home secretary Michael Howard declared that "prison works".
Indicating that the current problems were the result of cuts rather than tougher sentences, Lord Falconer said: "The prisons are in a mess because of the deliberate decision to reduce the number of prison officers while not reducing the prison population."
The peer, who was Jeremy Corbyn's shadow justice secretary until June, acknowledged a significant number of people on indeterminate sentences should be released and too many people were remanded in custody before trial, while some sentences were too long in non-violent, non-sexual cases.
"But I don't think it's right to think about reversing the increase in the severity of sentence that's taken place over the last 25 years in relation to violence cases and sexual cases and drug cases - big drug-dealing cases," he said.
Lord Falconer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the changes in sentence severity reflected the way society viewed the impact of crime.
"I think over these last 25 years, for example in relation to sexual crime, people have become much more aware of the extent of it, the damage it has done and they refuse to accept it, and that is reflected in the way that the criminal justice system has dealt with it.
"If you call it an arms race, because both political parties reflected that debate, then that may be one way of looking at it. But I think a better way of looking at it is that society changed its attitude and became much tougher to those things.
"I don't think society would wish to go back to the position of 1993 or 1992 when, for example, sexual crimes were less prosecuted and sentences were much more lenient."
He added: "Two-thirds of the increase in the number of people in prison between 1993, when the prison population was 41,000 and now, when it's 86,000, has been caused by increased numbers of peoples in for longer for sex, violence and drugs.
"I don't think that there should be a very significant change in relation to that."
Labour former minister John Spellar, who described Lady Chakrabarti's interview on Friday as a "car crash", told Today: "I think it will go down very badly in the country. Tony Blair's doctrine of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' set a policy that got us back in line with the public and recognised their fear of anti-social behaviour, burglary, muggings and worse and indicated very clearly that we were on their side."
Describing it as an "arms race" showed a "lack of understanding of where the public are" and Lady Chakrabarti's comments had let the Government "off the hook" about the problems in the prison system.
In a Today interview on Friday, shadow attorney general and former Liberty director Lady Chakrabarti said: "In my adult lifetime I have seen a doubling of the prison population. I think this is caused by an authoritarian arms race in British politics, particularly between the two parties."
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott described her comments as "great" and added: "Time to end the criminal justice arms race."