Mr Straw said the female prison population was falling
Vulnerable female offenders should be punished in the community rather than being sent to prison, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said.
His comments came during a visit to HMP Eastwood Park, in Gloucestershire, where he met prisoners and wardens.
Mr Straw said women prisoners were "very different" to men.
"We have to be sensible and humane in getting offending down in men and women, and we have to have different, but firm, approaches," he said.
The prison currently holds 280 prisoners, below its capacity of 362, ranging from child abusers like nursery worker Vanessa George, to murderers and drugs and burglary offenders.
However, the Ministry of Justice stressed that only vulnerable women rather than ones who are "serious or dangerous" should be punished in the community.
It said: "As part of the government's strategy, following the report on vulnerable women in custody by Baroness Corston, we are providing £15.6m to cut crime and reduce offending by providing additional services in the community for those women offenders and women at risk of offending.
"We will always provide enough prison places for serious offenders - those who should be behind bars. Prison is the right place for such people."
It comes after the justice secretary described female prisoners as being "very different to male prisoners"
HAVE YOUR SAY
Woman offenders should not be treated differently to men
David Rowell, Southampton
"While there is a consensus that we need to be tougher on male offenders there is also a broad consensus that where possible we should punish and reform females in the community and not in prisons," said Mr Straw.
He said the male population in prisons was rising but the number of women was decreasing.
"A lot of serious women offenders have mental health issues and problems with drugs and alcohol abuse and self-harm.
"Often that is caused by a lack of self-respect, so we need to give them confidence and an understanding about what they are doing."
Many female prisoners have children and are the principal provider of care, so being sent to prison disrupted both their and their children's lives, he added.
"We have to be sensible and humane in getting offending down in men and women, and we have to have different, but firm, approaches," said Mr Straw.