The new force, Police Scotland, which launched yesterday, has adopted a “victim-focused approach” to tackling human trafficking.
The change follows criticism by Graham O’Neill, who managed the Baroness Helena Kennedy inquiry for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR).
He warned in The Scotsman, in February, that the justice system was criminalising the victims, including children.
The issue was also raised by Jenny Marra, MSP, in the Scottish Parliament in the same month, when she warned “those youngsters are sitting in our prisons tonight”.
Police Scotland has created a dedicated team to deal with people trafficking, and admitted it had to change its approach.
Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, the head of major crime and public protection, said: “The shift for human trafficking coming in is a focus around identifying victims, so we recognise a situation where they’ve been trafficked, even without them being able to tell us themselves.
“It’s about identifying victims, rather than criminalising them. ”
He added: “Go back five years and a lot of people in the police would not have understood human trafficking was an issue in Scotland. Through media reporting, and a whole range of reasons, we understand that much better now.”
Graham O’Neill, a commentator on human trafficking added: “This is a very welcome initiative by the new Police Service of Scotland, demonstrating leadership, and best practice in international law on human trafficking.
”Ideally and, in time, this initiative will be enshrined in legislation, as that would be commensurate with the fundamental nature of the principle of non-criminalisation.”
People are trafficked to Scotland to work in forced labour, domestic servitude, organised crime and the sex industry.
In cannabis factories, in particular, teenage boys from Vietnam and other parts of Asia find themselves locked in gutted properties, with powerful heating systems and thousands of pounds worth of plants.
The majority of people who are trafficked into Scotland come from Asia, Africa or eastern Europe.
An example of the new approach has come within the past few weeks in Aberdeen, where an eastern European woman was stopped while shoplifting.
She was identified as a victim rather than an offender and is not facing charges, with police going after the people who brought her to Scotland.
Ms Marra said: “We have victims of human trafficking in Scottish jails. It is important they are given the help and support they need, not sent to prison for crimes they were forced to commit.
“Our best estimate shows there are more victims of trafficking in Scottish prisons than there are traffickers. This is unacceptable in a modern and civilised society.
“That is why I am requesting a review of all convictions where an accused may have been trafficked.”
There have been very few prosecutions of human traffickers in Scotland, particularly compared with England and Wales. However, there were 93 potential victims of human trafficking referred to officials in 2011, 95 in 2010 and 39 in 2009.
The Scottish Government plans to include a new human trafficking aggravation in its next criminal justice bill.
That will mean longer sentences where crimes such as rape or assault have been aggravated by human trafficking.