CHILDREN'S groups and charities, including Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, have expressed dismay that a legal reform bill has failed to include a pledge to increase the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12.
The Criminal Justice Bill contained measures ranging from ending the need for corroboration in criminal trials to stiffer penalties for those who re-offend on early release.
Three years ago the Scottish Government raised the age of criminal prosecution to 12 but did not raise the age of criminal responsibility, meaning children can in effect still get a criminal record that can blight their future.
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A Government report last year promised "to give fresh consideration to raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12, with a view to bringing forward any legislative change in the lifetime of this Parliament" but this does not feature in the new bill.
A dozen bodies have together written to Aileen Campbell, Minister for Children and Young People, urging the Government to put this reform in the bill.
One of the charities is CHILDREN 1st, whose chief executive Anne Houston said: "It's the Scottish Government's ambition to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up: a country where they are protected, their rights are respected and support given where needed.
"Our organisations view raising the age of criminal responsibility for children as one of the key actions needed to help make this vision reality.
"In Scotland, we are rightly proud of the unique and progressive children's hearings system which addresses children's 'needs and deeds'.
"Yet this approach is let down by legislation which effectively labels children as criminals."
She added: "We would like the Scottish Government to act on this commitment by including an appropriate measure in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill and are keen to discuss how this might be achieved."
Other signatories included Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, and representatives from Barnardo's Scotland, Aberlour, Children in Scotland, ChildLine in Scotland, the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, NSPCC Scotland, WAVE Trust, Includem, and Action for Children.
The letter to the minister states: "We recognise that children can, and sometimes do, engage in offending behaviour. However, labelling children as criminals from such an early age can have extremely negative consequences.
"Instead, we need to recognise that they and their families need support and help to address the causes of their problematic behaviour in order to prevent any further offending.
"We believe that such an approach will bring more benefits in the longer term for both the individual child and wider society."
The charities also linked the issue of treating children as criminals to Freedom of Information statistics showing the Scottish justice system continues to allow children to be detained overnight in police cells, although both police and the Government insisted this was always done as a last resort and for as short a period as possible.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We raised the minimum age of prosecution from eight to 12 in the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010.
"We will consider calls for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to increase."