SCOTLAND'S children's commissioner has called for offenders aged 16 and 17 to be kept out of prison, and the introduction of specialist youth courts to help prevent the creation of "career criminals".

Tam Baillie argued people aged 16 and 17 who commit serious crimes should be held instead in secure accommodation which he says offer a more "welfare-based approach".

Baillie also said rather than sending anyone aged 16 to 21 to court, young offenders should be dealt with by specialist youth hearings, similar to the children's hearing system.

In response, opposition politicians warned young people who committed serious offences should not be treated with "kid gloves".

Baillie will discuss the topic of young people and the justice system in a Howard League Scotland lecture in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

He told the Sunday Herald one key idea he would raise was keeping people aged 16 and 17 out of jail. He said: "We have currently got a reduction in our custody figures for 16 and 17-year-olds which is good news.

"If we have got a reduction in our custody figures and at the same time we are sitting periodically with vacancies in our secure estate, there may be opportunity to look at not having youngsters in custody.

"For those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, there will still be the opportunity of being held under a secure regime."

A review of criminal justice policy in 2008 suggested specialist youth hearings for people aged 16 and 17. Baillie says this idea should be extended to those aged up to 21.

"If we take an approach which isn't just focused on offending behaviour, but which has the scope to look at a much broader range of supports which could be offered to young people - I think we have a better chance of reducing reoffending," he said. "We need to look at how we can, at the earliest stage possible, divert these youngsters from offending."

Baillie also called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be raised from eight to 12. The age at which someone can be tried in an adult court was recently raised to 12, but those as young as eight can be referred to children's hearings.

Morag Driscoll, director of the Scottish Child Law Centre, backed the idea of raising the age of criminal responsibility.

"We don't trust children of eight to cross busy roads on their own," she said. "It does not mean they cannot be dealt with if they commit offences: they can still go through the children's hearing system."

Youth justice expert Bill Whyte, of Edinburgh University, said action had already been taken to separate under-18s in prisons after criticism of jailing them by the United Nations.

But he added questions could be raised over why under 18s were in prison in the first place.

He said: "We are so out of line with every other European country, with the lowest age of criminal responsibility and among the highest detention of under 18s.

But Scottish Tory chief whip John Lamont said: "Many 16 and 17-year-olds who find themselves in the dock have committed extremely serious offences. They should not be treated with kid gloves. We agree early intervention is absolutely key - But people will look at these proposals and worry they're an extension of a soft-touch culture, and will do nothing to improve the safety of the public."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said offending by under-18s had dropped by 28% since 2008-9. She added: "This Government recognises that most young people are a credit to their communities and youth crime is falling sharply."