A leading child protection officer has suggested paedophiles who view indecent images should not be given criminal sanctions unless they pose a physical threat to children, according to The Times.
Lower level offenders should be given counselling and rehabilitation and police should focus on the most dangerous paedophiles with access to children and those looking at the most serious images, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for child protection, is reported to have said.
Offenders who view online images should avoid jail only if they have been risk-assessed and shown to not have the potential to be in contact with children, he is reported to have told the newspaper.
The Times quoted Mr Bailey as acknowledging many people may be horrified at the stance but alternatives needed to be looked at as increasing reports of sexual abuse have pushed the situation to "saturation point".
He reportedly told the paper: "Let's be really clear: somebody going online and using their credit card to direct the abuse of a child in the Philippines should be locked up, categorically.
"That individual who is not in contact with children and doesn't pose a threat to children and is looking at low-level images ... when you look at everything else that's going on, and the threat that's posed of contact abuse to children, we have to look at doing something different with those individuals.
"Do the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the police have the capacity to put them into the justice system?"
An NSPCC spokesman said: "It is clear from these staggering levels of recorded child sex offences that police have a huge number of cases to investigate, often with limited resources.
"Prison sentences serve a vital purpose in reflecting the severity of the crime, protecting the public, acting as a deterrent, and helping a victim see their offender deservedly brought to justice.
"But we cannot arrest our way out of the situation - if we are to stem this tide and protect more children we must make prevention and rehabilitation a priority.
"With the right support we can prevent offenders from abusing and help those who do harm children change their behaviour."
Mr Bailey said that the scale of the problem meant police needed to concentrate their resources on the offenders who posed the most serious risk to children.
He said they were currently arresting 400 men a month and were still only seeing the "tip of the iceberg".
"There are undoubtedly tens of thousands of men that are seeking to exploit children online with a view to meeting them, with a view to then raping them and performing the most awful sexual abuse upon them," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"That's where I believe our focus has got to be. They are the individuals that pose the really significant threat."
He said that those who were simply viewing images could be dealt with through the use of conditional cautions, requiring them to attend rehabilitation courses.
"They would still become a registered sex offender and that means they are still being managed. It gives us the capacity just to deal with the scale and volume of referrals that we are now consistently getting," he said.