Ministers are seeking more effective short-term punishments
Prison sentences of six months or less are to be discouraged, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said.
Speaking during a visit to Polmont Young Offenders Institute, Mr MacAskill said the government wanted "tough" community orders used instead.
He said a new Community Payback Sentence would see offenders agree to unpaid work before they left court.
The measures will form part of a bill aimed at tackling prison overcrowding and high levels of reoffending.
Mr MacAskill said the unpaid community work would start within a week of a court appearance and finish inside six months.
He said: "I won't sit back and see low-risk offenders on short sentences get free bed and board when they could be paying back to the communities they harm.
"The facts speak for themselves - 58% of offenders who get a Community Service Order have kept a clean record after two years.
"This compares with only 26% of those released from prison sentences of six months or less."
Mr MacAskill said the move would help build confidence in community sentences and make them immediate and of benefit to the communities involved.
Judges should not impose a custodial sentence of six months or less unless they feel there is no other option, under the terms of the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.
Judges are also to be allowed to hold review hearings to check progress of community sentences, under the new plans.
Tagging is also to be introduced for judges considering breach of bail, extending its use from things such as home detention curfews at the end of prisoners' sentence.
A Scottish Sentencing Council is also to be set up to bring greater "consistency and transparency" to the sentencing process.
It comes after former First Minister Henry McLeish's Prisons Commission report which was published earlier this year and called for fewer criminals being jailed and community sentencing to be toughened up.
There are 7,770 prisoners in Scottish jails at present, according to figures from the Scottish Prison Service, with a further 396 on home detention curfew (HDC).
Ministers claim this is among the highest levels in Europe while offending rates are at a record low.
Labour claimed the proposals would leave some sex offenders, knife criminals and people guilty of serious assault more likely to "dodge" jail.
Party justice spokesman Richard Baker said: "The public will be quite rightly outraged at this move today by the SNP.
Mr MacAskill was speaking during a visit to Polmont YOI
"They have basically established a criminals' charter where offenders will know they have a good chance of dodging jail even though they have committed sometimes serious crimes."
Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken said the plans will end in disaster.
"From looking at these proposals there is no longer any doubt - the SNP is hell-bent on creating a soft-touch Scotland and the plans outlined in today's response are nothing more than a recipe for disaster," he said.
"Not only is the Scottish Government intent on curbing the power of what is supposedly an independent judiciary, but it is actively moving away from considering prison as a valid option for offenders, which is unacceptable."
But Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Robert Brown said the move would seek more effective means to cut reoffending rates.
Mr Brown said: "It's not about easing prison overcrowding, although that's a helpful side-product, it's about having something that's more effective in terms of stopping people reoffending."
The MSP said community sentences led to a far lower reoffending rate in the realm of 45%.
He added: "This has got to work in practical terms and people do have to have confidence in the community that it's going to be effective and successful."