The priority after thefts should be compensation
or reparation for the victim, Prof Ashworth said
Thieves and fraudsters should not be jailed, a legal expert has said.
In a pamphlet released by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Prof Andrew Ashworth said jail should be reserved for offenders who commit crimes of a violent, sexual or threatening nature.
Fines and community sentences would be more effective for others and reduce the prison population in England and Wales by almost 6,000, he said.
But the government said it had "no intention" of changing the law.
Distributed to courts
Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, who advised the judiciary on sentencing between 1999 and 2010, said prison should still be considered in cases of robbery, blackmail and burglary.
But for "pure property offences", including theft, handling of stolen goods, criminal damage and fraud, imprisonment was disproportionate, he said.
"We should be reserving our most severe form of punishment for our most serious types of offending.
"Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?" he said.
"Instead, the priority should be to deal with such offences in the community, giving precedence to compensation or reparation for the victim and, where the offence is sufficiently serious, imposing a community sentence."
Nearly 20,000 people were jailed for theft and handling
stolen goods in 2012
He also argued against imprisoning repeat, non-violent offenders.
He pointed to those convicted of begging and prostitution, who cannot be jailed no matter how many times they reoffend.
The Howard League plans to distribute the pamphlet, entitled "What if imprisonment were abolished for property offences?" to every magistrates' court in England and Wales in an attempt to spark a debate on sentencing issues.
Frances Cook, Howard League's chief executive, said: "When it comes to crimes like theft and fraud, victims are losing out from a justice system that too often prioritises putting the perpetrator behind bars rather than returning people's stolen property and providing much needed compensation."
The charity said more people were sent to prison for theft or handling stolen goods than for any other crime. According to Ministry of Justice figures, 19,293 people were sentenced to immediate custody for theft and handling stolen goods in England and Wales in 2012.
Ms Cook added: "At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it's time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison."
But a spokesman for Victim Support said the type of crime was not a reliable indicator of how much impact an offence had had on a victim.
"It would be hard for community sentences to retain public confidence if offenders knew they could keep committing certain types of crime and never be jailed," he said.
"It is essential when passing sentence that judges and magistrates can take into account the full facts of the case - including the impact on the victim - not just the nature of the offence."
And Justice Minister Damian Green said: "People who commit these crimes devastate lives and cause untold misery in our communities.
"This government has no intention of changing the law to prevent judges sending them to prison. It is right they have the full range of sentencing options available to them."