The criminal justice system has reached a "critical moment", the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales has said.
Lord Woolf said he was concerned for the victims of crime
Lord Woolf told an audience at University College London the British people have little confidence that the system can ensure justice is done.
The efforts of the prison service are thwarted by the "chronic problem" of overcrowding, he said.
But, he added, the new Sentencing Guidelines Council will help make penal policy "less of a political issue".
The council, an independent body, will be headed by Lord Woolf.
He aims to make the punishment more appropriate to the crime, commenting that courts had been under continuous pressure to increase sentencing.
Lord Woolf also welcomed measures to streamline the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system was at "critical moment", he said, with low conviction rates and high levels of reoffending.
Lack of morale
This was not helped by overcrowding in prisons and a severe lack of morale and resources in the probation service, he added.
He said: "My concern in painting this sombre picture is not so much with the offenders who often find their regimes undermined by overcrowding, but with those who will be the victims of crime because of our inability to tackle offending behaviour.
"We are not being sufficiently tough on the causes of crime."
BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw suggested Lord Woolf's comment could be interpreted as a swipe at a phrase which has come to define Tony Blair's approach to law and order.
Our correspondent said the media had also been criticised by Lord Woolf for launching vituperative attacks on judges without finding out the facts.