A generation of British children is being "demonised" because of misplaced hysteria over teenage crime, according to the Government's youth justice tsar.
Professor Rod Morgan, the Government's chief adviser on youth crime, today issues a warning that children as young as 10 are being labelled with "the mark of Cain on their foreheads" because of the furore over anti-social behaviour.
Calling for a radical rethink in how we deal with unruly teenagers, Professor Morgan says that discretion should be exercised in cases where children are being sent to court for offences that would once have been dealt with by a slap on the wrist. His comments - in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday - will alarm ministers who have trumpeted the success of their anti-yob policies, claiming that they are ridding areas of teenage gangsas well as bringing respect back to communities.
Since their introduction in 1999, more than 2,000 anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) have been issued across the country against children in an effort to tackle offending. However, in some cases, young children are given Asbos lasting up to 10 years, covering the whole of their teenage years.
Figures also show that record numbers of children are being sent to court, although the actual level of youth offending has remained the same over the past decade. Ten years ago about a third of the 200,000 children in the criminal justice system every year went to court. Today the figure is closer to half.
Professor Morgan, who is the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said: "There are adverse consequences of fixing a mark of Cain to a child's forehead. We should not forget the lessons of the 1960s and 70s of the labelling effect. The argument is that if you give a dog a bad name then the dog may live up to the name."
Professor Morgan said that children are being sent to court for trivial offences such as swearing in the playground or breaking windows. He says teachers and parents should instead be reprimanding children, rather than police arresting them, and that more use should be made of early prevention schemes such as dedicated police officers in schools.
Professor Morgan, who took up his post two years ago, also says there is a danger that serious youth offenders who do need targeting will slip through the net. "If we are dragging into the system kids who can be dealt with outside then we are overloading it and that means it's likely we will not do as good a job as the public expects with higher-risk cases."
Children's charities are warning that police are also seeing children as "soft targets" to up their conviction rates. They also blame the increasing gulf between adults and children for the fact young people are now feared rather than cherished.
Liberty, the human rights group, is now threatening to expose the Government's poor record on how children are treated in Britain when it reports to the UN next year. Shami Chakrabati, its director, said that criminalising children had become a national "obsession".
She said: "I get more hate mail for sticking up for kids than for terror suspects. We are alienating the workforce of tomorrow and creating a generation who will have little respect for the law and even less respect for us."
Nacro, the crime reduction charity, is calling for youth workers to patrol the streets in an effort to stop children from going to jail. "There's this myth that the criminal justice system will solve all of our problems," said Chris Stanley, a spokesman on youth crime for the charity. "Once [the offenders] get to court, that can often be the slippery slope down to more offences."