Police and prosecutors today launched the new policy to tackle the rising number of housebreakers who cause misery and hardship to people in Scotland over the festive season.
Victim support workers welcomed the move and the timing of the initiative, which runs from today until January 6, saying the damage caused by the crime is hugely underestimated by the public and that people suffer emotionally and psychologically as well as financially.
Police, who revealed there had been a 4% rise in housebreakings since April, said the theft of Christmas presents people have often saved up all year for is "sickening and traumatising".
Solicitor General Lesley Thomson, QC, said the policy was designed as a strong deterrent to criminals.
She said: "Housebreaking is a traumatic experience for anyone. Apart from suffering the loss of cherished possessions, it can often leave people afraid of being in their own home, particularly the elderly or those who live alone.
"We know people can be away at this time of year and many have expensive items stored in their home, making them a target for a break-in. The loss of presents which people have often saved all year to buy is particularly sickening for those involved."
Housebreaking is usually prosecuted on summary complaint in front of a sheriff, with a maximum sentence of one-year imprisonment. But anyone accused of the offence in the next few weeks will face a trial on indictment before a sheriff and jury with a possible sentence of up to five years.
The Victim Support Scotland charity said some older people were too scared to go out in case their property was targeted, while others no longer feel safe in their home.
David Sinclair, of Victim Support Scotland, said: "We represent 180,000 victims of crime every year and several thousand will be the victims of burglary, or housebreaking.
"We have had experience of older people who have been victims of burglary who effectively become prisoners in their own home because they feel they have to stay in as they are concerned for the safety of their home.
"If the policy set up over this Christmas period is a success it would be a very strong indication that it should be used more widely."
John Scott, QC, who specialises in human rights cases, said some crimes that are problematic in certain areas have been penalised more stringently by sheriffs if deemed appropriate.
He said: "People will still have the right to trial and there currently is the power to try on indictment, so when there has been a rise of 4% then this is the sort of thing the Crown and police should be doing."
But he added that it could also lead to appeals. He said: "The offender could make an argument in an appeal that they should not have been made an example of.
"It is a message from the Crown that they are looking for higher sentences and are looking for sheriffs to respond to it if appropriate."
The policy will apply to the crimes of theft by housebreaking, housebreaking with intent to steal or attempts at either of those offences.
Police Scotland said some parts of the country were experiencing greater levels of the crime than the average.
It has launched Operation RAC, with dedicated teams to investigate break-ins in those areas.
Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson said: "I say this message directly to those intent on committing housebreakings in Scotland - if you engage in this invasive and distressing form of crime, we will use every resource at our disposal to remove you from our communities and ensure you spend time behind bars."
The teams will operate in Edinburgh, Forth Valley, Lothian and Borders, Fife, Highlands and Islands, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Aberdeen and Lanarkshire.