Children aged 3 reported for crimes by Police Scotland

Image caption In the past two years, children in Scotland committed more than 40,000 offences

New figures obtained by the BBC show that police have recorded hundreds of children as young as three for shoplifting and vandalism.

According to a Freedom of Information request, children under 16 have committed more than 40,000 offences in Scotland in the past two years.

That includes 25 three and four year-olds recorded for offences such as shoplifting and vandalism.

Police Scotland say they have to record all crimes and offences under the National Crime Recording Standard.

But experts warn that stigmatising young children increases their chances of criminal behaviour.

The figures also reveal that police recorded more than 5,000 violent crimes by under 16s in the past year.

The BBC understands that a long awaited report on officers use of stop search will reveal on Friday that hundreds of children under 10 were stopped and searched by Police Scotland in the first few months of its creation.

Policy review

The Scottish Police Authority was asked to review the practice following concerns about increasing use of the power. Police say their use of stop search is proportionate and intelligence-led.

Currently the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is eight - one of the lowest in Europe. In England and Wales children are held responsible for crimes at age 10. In Germany, Italy and Russia it is 14.

The Scottish government told the BBC they will consider whether the age should be raised within the lifetime of this Parliament.

Ministers have already increased the age of criminal prosecution to 12. It means children aged between eight and 12 would be referred to the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration but not to the procurator fiscal.

Prof Susan McVie of Edinburgh University conducted research indicating that stigmatising children at a young age increases their chances of offending.

She said: "We know that where young people are repeatedly targeted by the police that they not only have very negative views about the police and other elements of authority but it can have a negative impact on how they feel about themselves.

"If you are labelled as a troublemaker often enough you come to believe that label. And if you feel they perceive you to be an offender anyway then there's nothing to lose by continuing to engage in offending."

Corporate parents

Alex Horne, 21, first got picked up by the police when he was six. He is now working with Who Cares? Scotland to help other young people and help to train the police on their forthcoming legislative role as corporate parents.

"I got first in trouble from six years old and I started getting progressively worse. As I got to eight and nine I was getting arrested and taken to cells," he said.

Calum Steele, the General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, called for a review of the way young people are recorded in crime statistics.

He said: "We shouldn't have a five year-old appearing in crime statistics. It's nonsensical."

Ch Insp Hilary Sloan of Police Scotland said police work with partners on a range of activities to try to engage young people and divert them from crime.

She said: "The police record crimes because we have to have an understanding of what crimes are occurring within the communities and because of the Scottish Crime Recording Standard we have a responsibility to do that.

"The criminal age of responsibility is eight. Children 12 and above can be tried in a court of law.

"Between the ages of eight and 12 there are diversionary tactics in place in order to try to divert them away from criminal actions."

Youth crime

In relation to Stop Search she said: "We target the right people at the right time in the right places. If youths are gathering and causing anti-social behaviour then obviously we are going to engage with them."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "Youth crime has fallen by a massive 52% over the last five years and continues to fall, dropping 22% since 2011/12.

"The Scottish government's early intervention initiative - the whole system approach - tackles all aspects of youth offending from low level crime to the most serious and harmful offences and aims to stop young people following the wrong path into a life of crime by identifying at the earliest opportunity when they are in trouble.

"Recorded crimes and offences are not proven offences. Police have a requirement to record all crimes under the Scottish Crime Recording Standard. This ensures consistency and a victim-centred approach to crime recording across Scotland.

"The Scottish government will consider whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised within the lifetime of this Parliament. To this end, we have set up a working group to look at the practical challenges of doing so."

Anne Houston, chief executive of charity Children 1st, said: "We support raising the age of criminal responsibility to prevent children who are far too young being charged with crimes.

"It is important to continue to build on the progressive approach in Scotland, where we work together and intervene earlier to protect children and focus on their wellbeing."

Lucy Adams will be reporting on Scotland's child offenders in Scotland 2014, on BBC Two Scotland at 22:30. You can watch again on the BBC iplayer.

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