When the stars align’: decision-making in the NSW juvenile justice system 1990-2005

Elaine Fishwick

PhD thesis, conferred 2015

This thesis examines decision-making in the New South Wales juvenile justice system. It investigates what factors and which people influenced the setting of policy agendas and the choice of policy options during the period 1990 – 2005. Using data from in-depth interviews with key policy actors and from documentary analysis, it aims to identify the dynamic interplay of historical, institutional, legal, professional, pragmatic and political factors within wider economic, social and public policy contexts to explore how and why juvenile justice policy developed in the way that it did during this period. The time frame for the study begins with the publication of the report Kids In Justice: A Blueprint for the Nineties by the NSW Youth Justice Coalition, and continues to 2005, a year marked by the publication of the NSW Law Reform Commission’s Report on Young Offenders, public street disturbances in suburbs of Sydney and the resignation of the Labor Premier the Hon. Bob Carr on August 6th. This time frame is significant as it epitomizes what appears to be a gradual, although not complete shift in approaches to juvenile justice policy: from the promise of potentially progressive diversionary strategies envisaged in the Kids in Justice Report to an approach which increasingly appeared to be concerned with control and punishment and with appeasing media demands.

The thesis is a trans disciplinary study. It draws on insights from law, policy studies, media studies and criminology, and pulls them together to develop a unique analytical approach to juvenile justice. It adopts a blended theoretical perspective by combining key elements of critical social sciences with complexity theory together, in an approach, which has been termed by Byrne (1998, 2011) as ‘complex realism’ and by Carroll (2009) as ‘critical complexity’.

The thesis concludes that decision takes place within an historically contingent context of what can be termed ‘negotiated order’. There are elements of certainty in the decision-making process but it is also characterised by serendipity and change. Policy processes are dynamic and change can be at times minimal and incremental and at other times monumental. It is argued that people and their ambitions, emotions, skills and experiences are absolutely fundamental to any understanding of policy and this thesis emphasises their role in decision-making. It is anticipated that the insights gathered from looking at this moment in the history of juvenile justice and the influences on decision-making will not only contribute to a more detailed understanding of the policy process in criminology and related disciplines, but might also provide those engaged in advocacy and reform with some tools for even more effective action.

Supervisor: Associate Professor Susan Goodwin