Criminals who burgle commercial premises could escape jail, under proposals put forward by the Lib Dems.
But the plan came under immediate fire from Labour chairman Ian McCartney who branded the Lib Dems "soft on yobs".
While for the Tories, Oliver Letwin said the proposal would send out the "wrong signal" to criminals.
Home affairs spokesman and London mayoral candidate Simon Hughes wants an overhaul of community sentencing to make it "tougher than prison".
He argued that jail was a soft option for many seasoned criminals whom he argued should be made to put back into the society they had offended against.
"We need a new principle - that offenders should mend the harm they have done, and mend it in the community where the offence took place," said Mr Hughes.
Local authorities should play a role in identifying jobs that needed doing and would improve the quality of life for local people.
Asked about whether he believed burglars should be given community sentences, Mr Hughes drew a distinction between different types of offences.
"My view is that if people go into a residential property where they have any encounter with individuals where they threaten or disturb people, then that is an imprisonable offence.
"Basically it's an offence against the person and my view is that offences against the person are ones where you lock people up.
"If you do an office burglary at the weekend and nick some computers, that sort of offence is perfectly easily dealt with outside.
"If you do a burglary of a garage when people are away on holiday that sort of offence may be best dealt with the first time on the outside."
He said in the case of residential property with no-one there then the "court will have to decide that".
Mr Hughes said offences such as repeated petty theft or lesser drug offences could be dealt with outside prison.
He admitted that the proposal would not have a significant impact on the prison population and he said that the probation service would need to be expanded to cope with the increased demand.
"For many criminals, prison is an occupational hazard. It is actually the soft option that locks them up for a few months in all-expenses paid accommodation with three meals a day, a gym, pool table, and a telly.
"Then they are free to leave and return to a life of crime - unrepentant, undaunted, undeterred.
"It is time for us to change that ... victims of crime and the communities they live in are entitled to reparation for the crimes they have suffered."
Mr Hughes added his "new-style community sentences" would make the most of technology to track the movements of offenders.
Cash saved from prison places could be used to turn the probation service "into a real frontline against crime".
Mr McCartney accused the Lib Dems of breaking previous promises on crime.
"Simon Hughes went around Brent promising the earth on fighting crime," he said.
"A week later he now says he wants career burglars, class A drug offenders and organised criminals to avoid jail."
"They are soft on yobs and tough on the victims of crime."
Mr Letwin said although the Lib Dem proposal to reduce prison over-crowding was "well intentioned" the real solution was to build more cells.
He said: "People who are the victims of burglary find it a pretty traumatic
experience, and if I am the next home secretary I shall not want to be
responsible for giving a signal that society doesn't much mind about such
"The Conservative position has been, is, and will remain that all burglars,
including first time burglars, should expect to go to jail."