More than 3,000 people a week are being prosecuted for not having a TV licence making up a tenth of all magistrate court cases, it has been revealed.

Spiralling numbers of prosecutions courts deal with more such cases than any other offence.

Two out of three of the defendants are women – thought to be because they are more often at home when enforcement officers call.

Last year 140,000 defendants were convicted and saddled with a criminal record.

The revelations have raised concerns that the fee evaders are being treated with a heavy hand and face tougher penalties than drug users and shoplifters.

Magistrates called for the offence to be decriminalised so defendants are dealt with outside the courts. Over four years the number of prosecutions for licence fee evasion has soared by more than 20 per cent.

The most recent figures, show nearly 165,000 television set owners were prosecuted over 12 months for not buying the £145.50 licence.

Anyone found guilty of evading the licence fee is given a criminal record and can be fined up to £1,000. If they fail to pay the fine they can be jailed – which has happened in dozens of cases. In contrast, shoplifters, thugs and vandals are routinely given spot fines of £80 and are not saddled with a criminal record.

Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch, said: ‘A criminal conviction carries huge repercussions and it is questionable if a TV licensing offence warrants such a heavy handed approach. A civil alternative would still allow revenue to be recovered without blighting people’s futures with the seriousness of a criminal conviction.’

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice show that in 2010, 164,444 people were prosecuted for evading the licence fee. Of those, 142,375 were convicted and sentenced in the courts.

By contrast, spot fines were given to more than 40,000 for the theft of goods worth up to £200. Vandals causing £500 worth of damage were handed fines for criminal damage on more than 6,700 occasions. Nearly 35,000 were fined for anti-social behaviour.

Fines raised from the offence have also risen sharply over four years and are up by about 50 per cent. The BBC’s own figures show at least 74 people over the past five years have been put in prison for non-payment.

The number of prosecutions has risen in part because many more are struggling to pay.

In 2010, licence fee fines totalled just under £25million a year. In 2007 the total stood at £16.5million. The money raised goes to the Treasury rather than to the BBC. The average fine for is £171.

A separate body, TV Licensing, is contracted by the BBC to administer the system and bring prosecutions. It employs an army of enforcement officers who last year visited more than four million homes.

Last night a TV Licensing spokesman said: ‘On behalf of the majority who pay, we will prosecute evaders. The estimated evasion rate has remained steady, at a low of around five per cent, for the last five years.

‘TV Licence evasion cases may account for one in ten cases, but they take up a very small proportion of court time as few people attend court.’