The criminal age of responsibility should be raised from 10 to 12, with the exception of the most serious offences, the head of a leading children's charity has said.
Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo's and former director general of the Prison Service, said criminalising young children increased their chances of reoffending.
He said there are cheaper and more effective ways of dealing with early criminality such as family intervention programmes designed to make them face up to the consequences of their actions.
In a report - From Playground to Prison: The Case for Reviewing the Age of Criminal Responsibility - Barnardo's calls on the Government to lift the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12, except in cases of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, rape and aggravated sexual assault.
Mr Narey said: "It is crucial that those 10- and 11-year-olds who commit the most grave crimes are taken to court.
"Yet there is nothing to be gained from criminalising very young children for less serious offences and putting them through a court process they can barely fathom.
"In fact the repercussions are a heightened chance of further offending, more victims and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.
"This is not to suggest that these children should not face up to the consequences of their bad behaviour. There are a range of meaningful and effective interventions, involving the whole family, which can and should be employed."
In 2008, 5,671 children aged 10 and 11 received a youth justice disposal - a custodial or community sentence, pre-court reprimand or final warning.
Only three of those children were placed in custody. The vast majority, 5,007, were given a reprimand or final warning.