A penal reform charity has said that some magistrates’ courts in England and Wales are four times likely to send offenders to prison than others.
The study found that 58% of adults who completed a prison sentence of less than a year in 2010 / 2011 reoffended. Ministers have said that greater supervision and rehabilitation would tackle the problem.
The Howard League, which is campaigning for more community sentences, obtained the sentencing date through a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Magistrates' courts can impose a maximum six-month prison term for a single offence and up to 12 months in total for more than one. They handed down almost 1.2 million sentences during 2011, of which more than 46,000 were custodial.
BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Coleman said there was something of a postcode lottery in magistrates giving jail terms, with a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of the country.
Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said it was good that magistrates’ courts were sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past. But he added that there was a conspicuous disparity in sentencing trends between different criminal justice areas.
She said that a short term prison sentence was a catastrophe for everyone it does not help change the life of the person sentenced. It was likely that such offenders compounded issues like drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend.
She added community sentences were much cheaper than custody and they delivered better results. They not only address a person's offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems.
In February, it was revealed that more than three-quarters of criminals sent to prison in England and Wales in 2011-2012 had at least one previous community sentence.
Campaign group the Centre for Crime Prevention - which obtained the data from the MoJ through a freedom of information request - said it highlighted what it sees as the failure of community penalties to stop reoffending.
In response, justice minister Jeremy Wright said it community sentencing was being tightened so every sentence contains a genuine punishment, including fines, unpaid work and strict curfews and exclusion zones.
He said reoffending rates were "unacceptably high and were currently highest among those sentenced to short prison sentences. It had to be tackled by changing the way how offenders were dealt after being released after short sentences.