Children who have committed minor crimes but have stopped breaking the law should have their record cleared when they turn 18, an inquiry has said.
The review, by a cross-party group of MPs and members of the House of Lords, heard a criminal record could hamper education and employment prospects.
It also found youth justice in England and Wales had "systemic failings" and an "inability" to prevent offending.
The government said it was "continually improving" the youth justice system.
Justice minister Jeremy Wright said youth crime was down and fewer young people were entering the system, but the ministry wanted to do more.
Inquiry chairman Lord Carlile said courts could be terrifying for a child.
"The key problem is that children appearing before courts often haven't got a real clue about what's happening to them," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"We must make it a much more accessible and understandable system for children, their parents and guardians, and for victims."
The Liberal Democrat peer said the current criminal justice system was not working and that overall reforms would make it "much rounder".
"What we find is that people whose lives have been reformed - they've graduated, they've maybe become teachers or lawyers or accountants - are inhibited at obtaining work because CRB checks and other records checks show that they have committed an offence, for example robbery of a mobile phone, when they were 16 years old," Lord Carlile told the BBC.
"And it's held against them for a very long time. So we think that if people have been through a good criminal justice system, they should be able to wipe the slate clean when they become an adult."
However, he said a "decent time lapse" should be in place when under-18s commit serious offences.
The review said where possible, children should not be taken before a court, and crown court appearances for under-18s should be the rare exception.
Under current rules, criminal convictions for under-18s stay on their record for five and a half years, while cautions last two years. Some offences are never removed.
Children in the courts in 2013
- 40,128 juvenile offenders (offenders aged under 18) were sentenced or cautioned of indictable offences in England and Wales
- More than half of those - 22,004 - had between one and 14 previous convictions or cautions
- 430 of them had more than 15 previous convictions or cautions
- 14,514 were first-time offenders
- Prosecutions of juveniles dropped from 126,500 in 2007 to 48,600 in 2013
- The number of juveniles found guilty at court fell from 97,400 in 2007 to 35,700 in 2013
Source:Ministry of Justice
Mr Wright said work was under way to improve the system.
"We have introduced a new out-of-court disposals framework, set up pilots to divert young people from crime and make sure those with mental health issues and learning difficulties are dealt with appropriately and have improved the way children and young people are dealt with in court," the justice minister said.
"We have received Lord Carlile's report into the effectiveness of the youth court and will consider the recommendations alongside other departments, local authorities and the senior judges."
'Anchor' to past
As well as calling for records to be cleared at 18 for low-level offences, the inquiry said these time periods should be reduced.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry suggested it is often not made clear to children by police that some out-of-court disposals, such as community resolutions, youth cautions and youth conditional cautions, can appear on criminal record checks.
One young person told the inquiry a criminal record was like an "anchor" to past offences.
The inquiry also found:
- Courts dealing with young offenders can "fail to achieve justice" because children do not understand or engage with the process.
- Children are "increasingly likely" to appear in adult magistrates' courts if they are detained overnight or at the weekend.
- Many legal practitioners, including the judiciary, are "insufficiently trained" to recognise young offenders' needs and lack specific knowledge of youth courts.
- Youth courts are often used for young lawyers to "cut their teeth", resulting in "poor representation".
- Legal professionals are "struggling to reach consensus on the core purpose" of youth courts. The courts "focus on determining innocence or guilt and sentencing" rather than using a "joined-up approach" to prevent reoffending.
Lord Carlile said there was "a great deal of confusion" in courts about what they could and could not do, resulting in some "quite unwise" prosecution decisions.
He added that no one should be able to work in children's courts without specific training. This included judges and advocates, he said.
Enver Solomon, of the National Children's Bureau, which provided the secretariat for the inquiry, said reforms were needed to ensure resources were not "wasted on processing children through the courts" in a way which did not stop them becoming "criminals of the future".
"It merits urgent attention by all political parties to bring forward new approaches that are well evidenced and will deliver far better outcomes for child defendants, victims and their families," he said.