Criminals would serve full sentences and more prisons would be built under plans unveiled by the Conservatives.
Mr Howard says he stands up for people who 'play by the rules'
Michael Howard said his policies would combat the public perception of sentencing in courts being a "charade".
The Tory leader said: "Prison sends a powerful message to those outside prison: crime doesn't pay."
Labour says the Tories have not shown how they would pay for their proposals on prisons. The Lib Dems say the prison works message is a "con".
The Tories made their crime plans, which include 5,000 more police a year, the focus of a newspaper advertisement on Sunday.
Much of the package has been unveiled before but the party is now giving more details, with Mr Howard saying crime is "out of control".
Judges would set a minimum sentence - to be served in full - and a maximum to be served by those still considered a threat.
Under the current system, criminals sentenced to four years or less are required to serve at least half of their term.
Those sentenced to more than four years serve at least two-thirds of their time.
The Tories would also end early releases for prisoners' current "home detention curfew scheme".
Mr Howard said on Monday that more than 3,500 crimes have been committed by criminals let out early - and 500 of them were violent crimes.
He said burglars should automatically be jailed for three years if caught for a third time and drug dealers get seven years for a third office.
Mr Howard said: "That will send a clear message: if you can't do the time, don't do the crime."
He accused Labour of setting an "arbitrary limit" of 80,000 prison places - while his party would provide an extra 20,000 places.
"Build more prisons and fewer criminals will be free to commit crime," said Mr Howard.
"It's common sense. It's how I will cut crime."
Criminologist David Wilson, from the University of Central England, said the UK already had the largest prison population in Europe.
And 90% of those on the early release curfew scheme did not reoffend before the end of their sentence, he said.
Labour said prison should only be for "the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders".
Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said: "The Conservative pledge on prison places would cost £760m on their own figures, but the Tories cannot say how they would fund this pledge
"Labour has already provided 17,000 extra prison places, with 3,000 more opening shortly. Labour also believes in prison being for the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders."
Liberal Democrat spokesman Mark Oaten said Mr Howard was "conning" the public with his "prison works" message, which pandered to a right-wing agenda.
"With over half of prisoners reoffending, creating even more prisoners will just create more criminals," he said.
Nacro - the national crime reduction charity - said Tories would be better spending money on more measures to prevent crime, support victims and alternatives to prison.