PARIS (Reuters) - France's government said on Friday it would extend and reinforce the use of probation by law to ease overcrowding in prisons and fight repeat offences, drawing heckles from conservatives who say the move is soft on criminals.
The decision follows recommendations by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is under pressure to ease the strain on a rundown prison system that houses nearly 70,000 inmates in ageing facilities criticized by human rights groups.
The Socialist government is also creating 6,500 new spots in prison, but doing away with minimum sentencing guidelines introduced under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy that Taubira says do not deter repeat offenders.
"The central question is how to stop the progression of repeat offences, which our citizens refuse to accept," said Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The plan, which has already drawn outrage from conservatives and police unions, could become a rallying point for right-wing voters ahead of municipal elections next spring.
France's prison population has grown by a third in the past decade, party due to politics under conservative governments of handing down heavy sentences on repeat petty offenders.
Hollande has tried to balance socially liberal policies like penal reform or gay marriage with a tough stance on crime, embodied by the popular interior minister, Manuel Valls. But conservatives say the strategy is confused.
Few other details have been disclosed. A judges' union representative said judges were awaiting further details as to how the new probation system would differ from current sentencing options that fall short of incarceration.
But the reform would end minimum sentencing laws for certain crimes committed by repeat offenders, a policy that prison experts say sent France's jail population skyrocketing and put thousands of non-violent petty offenders behind bars.
(Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mark Heinrich)