The branding of children as "yobs" risks demonising a whole generation of young people, the government's chief youth crime adviser has warned.
Hooded tops were banned at a shopping centre to combat a yob threat
Youth Justice Board Chairman Rod Morgan told the Observer politicians should stop labelling youngsters yobs and find answers to the youth custody crisis.
It comes after a string of government announcements to tackle bad behaviour.
But ex-Met Police Commissioner Lord Stevens has called for persistent young offenders to be treated as criminals.
The debate follows concern about the so-called "happy slapping" craze, in which youngsters attack people and film it on their mobile phones.
Last week Home Office Minister Hazel Blears provoked controversy by suggesting young offenders on community service should wear visible uniforms.
Urging a rethink of youth crime policy, Lord Stevens suggested that it was no longer "realistic to treat drug-dealing, carjacking, drunken violent 16-year-olds as children".
And he questioned, in a piece for the News of the World, whether 12-year-olds with dozens of criminal convictions were really "too young to know right from wrong".
The criminal age of responsibility is 10 but children younger than 16 are dealt with by the juvenile courts of the youth justice system - rather than through adult courts, except in extreme cases.
But Lord Stevens called for an "entirely new" mid-level of law "placed between the old juvenile and adult levels of criminal responsibility".
In this mid-level of youth justice between the ages of 14 and 18, he argues, allowances for youthfulness could be made but the youngsters could still be punished as "knowing, active criminals".
He also said that more persistent young offenders should be locked up in secure units and that more youth centres should be built.
"Not least because the general community... needs and deserves respite from their repeat offending."
But the Youth Justice Board's Professor Morgan argues that the current debate about youth crime was sending out "contradictory messages".
On the one hand children were represented as the "country's aspirations" and on the other the were "condemned as thugs in hooded tops".
"We use the word 'yob' without distinguishing between very young children - who haven't chosen their parents, their neighbourhoods or their circumstances and can't walk away from them, and young adults.
"I don't think the word 'yob' should ever be used in relation to young children."
He said respect - a new buzzword for Labour's third term ambition to cut anti-social behaviour - was a "two-way street" and needed to be earned by adults.
The majority of teenagers and young people lead law-abiding and constructive lives, he said, but were generally demonised in the media.
He added: "To some extent statements from some of our politicians have tended to exacerbate that which I regret."