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Juvenile Offending

Until the middle of the 19th century young offenders were subject to standard processes of criminal law, including imprisonment. In 1864 Victoria followed English responses to an apparently serious problem of 'juvenile delinquency' by introducing separate training institutions for young offenders and potential offenders. The Neglected and Criminal Children's Act 1864 established reformatories for juvenile offenders and industrial schools for 'neglected' children. 'Neglect' was defined as 'wandering', consorting with undesirables, committing minor misdemeanours and being 'uncontrollable'. Committal to both institutions was through normal police and magistrates court procedures.

When the Act was unexpectedly used to commit large numbers of destitute non-offending children to government industrial schools it proved disastrous for the schools. After a number of scandals, foster care in private homes and (for Catholics) placement in institutions run by Catholic religious orders replaced industrial schools for younger and non-delinquent children. Reformatories were retained for offenders and delinquent neglected children but transferred to voluntary organisations, including the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. By the 1890s government retained only one central receiving house, the Royal Park Depot, with a small reformatory section.

Another wave of interest in offenders and potential offenders began in the 1880s, emanating from child rescue and broader social reform groups concerned about larrikin gangs, illegitimate births, prostitution, family disruption and alcoholism. Responses included the establishment of youth clubs to provide 'wholesome', often educational, leisure activities, and institutions where wayward young people could be placed voluntarily that were organised by religious denominations, inner-city missions and the Salvation Army.

A Children's Court and probation service were introduced in 1906 in response to pressure from groups including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Women and the Charity Organisation Society. Children's Courts were closed to the public, used less formal proceedings than adult courts and were conducted mainly by honorary magistrates until 1939. Probation enabled the minor offenders to remain at home under supervision by honorary probation officers.

While the configuration of court, probation and institutions changed little in the next half-century, the grounds for being 'put away' were extended. The Education Act 1910 enabled truants to be sent to institutions such as Tally Ho Boys' Village. Definitions of 'neglected child' were extended in the 1920s and 1930s to include street hawking, 'lapsing into a career of vice and crime', and 'being a female ... behaving in an indecent manner'. Delinquency continued to be associated with other contemporary social concerns, including mental deficiency, 'broken' families, bad housing, unemployment, exposure to unsuitable films and wartime dislocation.

The emergence of Bodgies and Widgies in the 1950s raised the spectre of an American-style gang culture taking root in Victoria. Government responses included financial support for youth organisations and a more professional bureaucracy. The probation service retained many voluntary workers but staffing and financial problems led to voluntary organisations gradually retreating from residential work. Government returned to the residential field, opening Winlaton in Nunawading, and extending the former reformatory at Royal Park as Turana Youth Training Centre.

In the 1970s the advent of critical sociologies and liberalising shifts in societal values, including the influence of civil rights movements, raised serious questions about statutory control over young people's behaviour. In 1976 the first government inquiry for over a century recommended abolishing the old 'neglect' definitions of juvenile misbehaviour and making children answerable only for specific offences, minimising admission to residential care and extending the range of community-based educational and support services. These recommendations were accepted. The old 'neglect' provisions of juvenile misbehaviour ceased to exist in 1978.

Current law and practice, under the Children and Young Persons Act 1989, provide for due process in proceedings, an open Children's Court, a hierarchy of court orders, an extended range of court-directed supportive services and minimal use of institutional placement. Despite some drug-related activity the general pattern of juvenile offending has been relatively stable in recent years, consisting of property and vehicle offences, offences against good order and (mainly minor) assaults.

Donella Jaggs

Jaggs, Donella, Neglected and criminal: Foundations of child welfare legislation in Victoria, Centre for Youth and Community Studies, Phillip Institute of Technology, Melbourne, 1986. Details