SCOTLAND'S most violent children will have their DNA profiles kept on a national police database for the first time under plans announced by Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, yesterday.
Any child who commits a "serious" violent or sexual assault and is subject to a Children's Hearing will automatically have their DNA kept on file for three years, if MSPs back the move.
Courts would have the power to extend that period if the youngster continued to commit crime, or if police believed they posed a serious risk.
In announcing the proposed expansion of the DNA database to include some youngsters dealt with by the hearings system, rather than the courts, Mr MacAskill said he was trying to balance the interests of the child with the need to protect the public from violent offenders.
He said: "Our unique and celebrated welfare-based Children's Hearings system deals with child offending in a way that aims to turn children away from a future path of criminality and protects them from the public spectacle of court prosecutions. That is right.
"However, in a small number of cases where a young person within the hearings system admits or is found to have committed a serious violent or sexual offence which may indicate a future risk of harm to themselves or others – and in particular to other children – we believe the forensic evidence should be retained for a limited period," he said.
An expert group will be set up to examine which offences will be covered.
The Scottish Government had considered retaining DNA from youngsters who commit any violent or sexual offence, but The Scotsman last month revealed that ministers were told such a move would demonise thousands of ordinary children every year.
Mr MacAskill said no decision had yet been made on whether to pursue a controversial proposal to retain DNA from offenders who accepted fiscal fines and other "direct measures" which meant they were not brought to court.
At present, only people convicted of crimes have their DNA kept on the database for the rest of their lives. Adults accused but not convicted of serious violent and sexual crimes can have their profiles kept for three years. Only children convicted of serious crimes in adult courts can have their DNA retained.
The Conservatives' justice spokesman, Bill Aitken, gave the move a cautious welcome. He said: "We would be minded to support these plans, but there would have to be safeguards."
His Labour counterpart, Richard Baker, voiced concern that Scotland would be left with a "weaker" system than south of Border, where DNA from people accused of crimes but not convicted is routinely kept.
Tom Roberts, the head of public affairs at the charity Children 1st, said:
"Children should be treated as children first and foremost."
He added: "We know that treatment and support for young offenders can prevent them from reoffending.
"For this reason, the focus should be shifted from the retention of DNA, which is only useful for criminal detection when a crime has already been committed."