The "three strikes" law will be repealed and more offenders will serve their sentences in the community under changes proposed by Justice Minister Andrew Little.
Little will take a proposal to repeal the controversial law to Cabinet when it meets in 10 days.
He was at pains to point out that the changes being made were a "modest" package of measures.
"We're not doing wholesale reform until we get a good public debate going," he told reporters this evening.
Little said the existing option of home detention for sentences of under two years in prison was being used less by judges.
"The proposal that's going before Cabinet is to give a bit of a statutory signal that we want more promotion of that as an alternative to prison."
The changes come at a time when the prison population remains well over 10,000 and is forecast to rise. A mega-prison at Waikeria is already off the table and Corrections was given money in the Budget to build pop-up prisons to contain the burgeoning muster.
The measures also include restoring the former Sentencing Council to provide consistency in sentencing across the country.
"The benefit of a sentencing council is that it doesn't just have judges on it, it has lay members ... so that the guidelines developed for judges reflect community expectations as well," Little said.
Little had confidence that the electronic bail system and greater numbers of police, as flagged by the Government, would ensure effective responses if something went wrong.
"The judges are very careful before they allow electronic bail because it's not just a question about whether you're being monitored, it's about if something does go wrong, the response is very quick."
"Home detention is a suitable sentence for those offenders assessed as no risk to the community, or very little risk to the community and for whom that is an effective punishment and an effective response."
Little denied the Government was going soft on crime.
"We want to have a good public debate ... I think it's time for New Zealanders to reflect on what we've been doing for the last 30 years, ask ourselves 'is this really working' and then look at alternatives."
He called the three strikes law a "gimmick".
"There's not much that three strikes does that can't be done in existing sentencing legislation."
National Party leader Simon Bridges said Little's proposal for those serving sentences of less than two years to get home detention instead of jail understated how serious those offenders could be.
"The thing Andrew Little doesn't seem to understand is that people don't go to jail for theft of a Moro bar. They go there for very serious violence, sexual offending and serious Class A drug dealing. He's effectively saying they will tag and release them and we will oppose that very strongly."
Bridges said relaxing bail laws would be particularly concerning. "If a serious offender is let out on bail the witnesses tend to clam up or in the worst cases go missing. There is no other way to call this than to say it's going soft on crime and communities will be less safe."
He said the "three strikes" law should also stay because it helped allow for longer sentences for the most serious offenders who were at high risk of re-offending.
"There's this picture that the Government is trying to present that it's a draconian law. It's not. It's very reasonable. It only applies to the most serious offences where they are committed repeatedly. In those rare cases where the offender does the crime they should also do the time."
Only three people have been sentenced under "three strikes" and in all three cases the judges opted not to hand down the maximum sentence for the third strike.