THE age at which children can be held criminally responsible in Scotland is to be raised from eight to 12 to bring the country into line with the rest of Europe.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is to include the age increase in controversial legislation, which the SNP Government will introduce this week.
Also included will be plans to phase out jail sentences of six months or less for minor criminals, a measure designed to ease pressure on overcrowded jails but one which has been opposed by Labour and the Conservatives.
Instead of custodial sentences for minor offenders, ministers will introduce so-called Community Payback Sentences, which will see criminals do unpaid work under supervision, seek help for drink or drug problems or take part in a programme to address their behaviour.
The decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 comes after Scotland's most senior law officer, the Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, criticised the current age for being "extremely low" and argued against criminalising children.
MacAskill said: "There is no good reason for Scotland to continue to have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe. Most importantly the evidence shows that prosecution at an early age increases the chance of reoffending – so this change is about preventing crime."
The change will see the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland increase beyond that of England and Wales, where it is 10.
MacAskill insisted that eight to 11-year-olds will not be "let off" as a result of the changes. "They will be held to account in a way that is appropriate for their stage of development," he said.
The Bill will also see an end to so-called "unruly certificates" which can allow 14 and 15-year-olds to be temporarily imprisoned in adult jails if they misbehave in secure accommodation.
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Gordon MacKenzie, of Central Scotland Police and chairman of the ACPOS Youth Issues Group, has backed the move to increase the age of prosecution.
But the Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken MSP said he was unconvinced by the move.
He said: "We will study the Scottish Government's proposals in detail, but the fact that so few under-12s have been charged shows that the current law is being applied with common sense and only in exceptional cases.
"That being so, I am not convinced that the case has been made for raising the age of criminal responsibility. Sometimes those under 12 can be involved in serious incidents and it is right that we retain the option of criminal proceedings."
The measure is just one of many changes being introduced by the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, which also includes the SNP's plans to crack-down on Scotland's alcohol culture.
Among the most controversial is the plan to scrap six-month sentences, which is likely to be supported by the Liberals and the Greens.
Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, said: "We believe that 81% of people convicted of knife crime will no longer receive custodial sentences. Certain sexual offenders will escape jail, people guilty of some types of assault and housebreakers will not be sent to jail.
"This is an extremely dangerous situation. Thousands of criminals will not go to jail. We agree that more should be done to empty our jails, but this is being done without the proper investment in community sentences."