The Liberal Democrats are insisting a proposal to send young car crime offenders on driving weekends is not "rewarding" them.
The Lib Dems want more local control on law and order
Speaking at the party's annual rally, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten suggested new thinking was needed to tackle anti-social behaviour.
And he urged the media to give the idea "space" and avoid kneejerk headlines.
He also set out plans to allow panels of local people to decide how to punish petty criminals.
The panels would decide punishment for offences like graffiti and anti-social behaviour, Mr Oaten said.
And he added: "Joy-riders going out in a city centre, stealing cars and driving around and killing themselves need to go through the court process and you need a punishment.
"But at the same time what is going to stop them doing it again the following Thursday?
"We suggest, for example, car mechanic courses, the opportunity to go on a weekend to ride cars round a track."
"And maybe just maybe they will get out of committing crime," he said.
He then urged the media to give the issue space predicting headlines in tabloid newspapers would accuse the Lib Dems of wanting to "reward" criminals.
Shadow Home Secretary David Davis suggested the policy would "reward criminals with
go-karting rather than punish them for breaking the law".
He said: "Britain has a real problem with youth crime and these proposals will do nothing to solve that problem."
But Mr Oaten insisted this approach to crime would work in cutting re-offending.
"I am absolutely convinced... that doing that stops them going out and nicking a car the following Thursday, because they are looking forward to the car mechanic session and the go-karting and they don't have the need to nick the car and go joy-riding."'
"But it must be matched with a punishment as well as the restorative element," he added.
Mr Oaten also warned the police needed to be better equipped, saying the AA and RAC often had more kit than the average police car.
The plan for community justice panels is part of what Mr Oaten calls "tough liberalism" - policies which he says are liberal, effective, but not perceived as weak.
The challenge is to appeal to voters wanting a tough approach on crime while keeping support from those preferring a liberal stance.
Mr Oaten told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the idea of recruiting residents of estates or parishes to the panels was a "tough option" against offenders.
"They would often have to face the person they committed a crime against and they would also have to pay back to the community," he said.
"I think it might actually reduce offending and make the community feel they
are getting justice done in their area.
"It worries me that, at the moment, the public feel let down by the court
"If you have an offender who goes in front of a magistrate 100 miles
away, the community don't really know what happens to that offender. They don't
see any payback for the community."
The Conservatives have derided as "utter nonsense" claims from Lib Dem campaigns chief Lord Razzall that his party will form the next non-Labour government.
Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said the optimistic mood among delegates in Bournemouth reflected more than success in only one-off by-elections.
He insisted plans for a new 50% tax rate for those earning more than £100,000 would provide enough money to scrap tuition fees, provide free long-term for the elderly and "cushion" the impact of rising council tax.
Mr Kennedy said colleagues had been surprised by his "ferociousness" in saying plans for new quangos and must include proposals for removing something else.
"There is too much interference in this country and we need to liberate people's talent a lot more and be a bit more hands off," he said.
"Politicians should be there to got the big issues right - and heavens we're getting too many big issues wrong - rather than over-regulating the individual."