Legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 should be enacted as soon as possible to “stop the criminalisation of eight-year-olds”, MSPs have heard.
A senior figure from the children’s hearing system also told politicians the age could be further raised to 16.
Malcolm Schaffer, head of practice and policy at the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, argued the criminal justice system is not needed to “control behaviour” of children and this can instead be dealt with through a welfare system.
Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, he said his organisation supports a Bill going through Parliament to raise the age from eight to 12.
The current age is one of the lowest in the world, and below the rest of the UK at 10.
The UN recommends the minimum acceptable age is 14.
“First and foremost our hope and desire is that this can be implemented as soon as possible so that we stop the criminalisation of eight-year-olds, ” Mr Schaffer said.
“We believe that it is worth looking and we can aspire to raising either the age of criminal responsibility or the age of criminal prosecution to either 14 or 16.
“Our only caution is we want to see this work.”
He added: “We’re about rehabilitation. We’re about children not having what’s happened to them at age 10-12 hanging with them all their lives. We want to give a fresh start.
“I think it’s important that we give a clear message that we are not stopping at 12.”
He said his organisation is confident a higher age is achievable and asked for more time to undertake research into this, saying the Scottish Government is supportive of further examination.
Mr Schaffer said raising the age higher than the Bill proposes means the children’s hearing system would be looking at more serious offences, including murder, rape and serious assault.
Questioned if this means the children’s hearings system would need extra powers, he said it currently has similar powers to a court over children, except for imprisonment.
He said the hearings system can place children in secure accommodation, in residential care or under home supervision.
He added: “We don’t have the power to fine children under 16, and we don’t have the power to place children in prisons.
“Good, because our belief is that no children under 16 should be.”
He warned a major challenge of raising the age to 16 is the children’s hearing system has no powers over a person once they reach 18.
The Liberal Democrats have lodged amendments to the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill which would, if passed, increase the age to 16.
If MSPs do not back this, the party has also put forward proposals to raise it to 14.
A report commissioned by Action for Children Scotland and Children’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson has called for 16 to be fixed as the age of criminal responsibility.