The Call to Order: Families, Responsibility and Juvenile Crime Control

Article excerpt

The family has come to occupy the centre ground of social policy discourse in a number of western states. Its discursive elevation has occurred against the background of growing `public concern' over the apparently precarious state of this major social institution. In Australia, the 1994 `International Year of the Family' appeared to encapsulate a wide range of issues and concerns relating to the state of the `modern family'.(1) Both major federal parties openly declared their commitment to push family-related issues to the top of the social policy agenda. Extensive and often heated public discussions have already taken place in relation to child care provision, the divorce rate, sole parent households, family welfare and taxation.(2) The emphasis given to the family has been such that the headline of a newspaper feature article referred to this as `The Issue of the 1990s'.(3)

This article explores the ways in which various strands of current public discourse on families and `family responsibility' have found expression in the area of juvenile crime control. It is argued that juvenile justice policy and practice reflect a tendency on the part of the state to locate the origins of crime and delinquency squarely in the context of the `failing family'.(4) From this standpoint it is the family, through the actions of its individual members and in its apparent failure to exercise effective care and control that is supposedly responsible for the growth of juvenile crime over recent years.(5) Such assertions have arisen in tandem with a generally negative perception of the changing composition of the family in contemporary western societies. In order to illustrate this argument the article focuses on a range of initiatives in the Australian juvenile justice system, including parental restitution and compensation, `crime prevention', family group conferences, community panels and curfews. It is maintained that such family-oriented measures compliment a range of contemporary discourses and practices that support the idea of greater `autonomy' in family affairs.(6)

Before examining the notion of `responsibility' in key areas of Australian juvenile justice, it is necessary to reflect briefly on the ideological centrality of the `traditional family' in recent public discourse. Indeed, the emphasis given to family responsibility in various spheres of social policy (including that of juvenile justice) needs to be understood in relation to the continued ideological dominance of the `traditional family' and the apparent assaults upon it from within (through the apparent erosion of discipline and order) and without (through economic hardship and `social decline'). In the popular historiography of this institution the nuclear family is often promoted as the idealised institution of tradition in which the genderised roles of its members are clearly set out according to the imperatives of the `natural' social order. Such assumptions have, at least in part, underscored public deliberations on `the state of the modern family' and have led to specific proposals aimed at `strengthening' this social institution. (One of the implicit arguments in this article is that while many of the assumptions associated with the traditional family are rarely stated explicitly in juvenile justice discourse they have nonetheless given impetus to the development of family-based measures. The family is thus seen increasingly as the `natural' and `proper' site of crime control, as well as the target for punitive actions when things go wrong).

Although the family has over recent decades undergone profound and lasting changes in terms of form and structure -- to the extent that it makes more sense to refer to `families' rather than the `the family' -- this has not prevented the nuclear family from presiding as the dominant ideological representation of tradition and stability.(7) The `nuclear', `bourgeois' or `closed domesticated' nuclear family has a long history and its origins may be located in the early nineteenth century when the particular social and economic demands of nascent industrial capitalism gave rise to the private domains of domestic patriarchal units. …