The tracking controversy: the roots of mentoring and electronic monitoring

Nellis, M. (2004) The tracking controversy: the roots of mentoring and electronic monitoring. Youth Justice, 4 (2). pp. 77-99. ISSN 1747-6283 (

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Nowadays, the term ‘tracking’ has only a faint presence in the youth justice field but throughout the 1980s, in England and Wales, it was the focus of a controversy out of all proportion to its incidence. Then, as now, it was used to denote a method of monitoring the whereabouts and time-use of young and young adult offenders. While many youth justice workers ardently defended it, many vigorously condemned it as too intrusive. In practice, its emphasis changed from something primarily surveillant to something primarily supportive, although its tough-sounding name was considered by its advocates to be discursively useful in a law and order culture. Rather paradoxically, the term faded from use in the aftermath of the Home Office’s (1988) Punishment in the Community initiative. Although aspects of the controversy were noted in contemporaneous studies of youth justice (Ely, Swift and Sutherland, 1987; Curtis, 1989, Blagg and Smith, 1989) some of which heightened its surveillant elements in order to critique it (Davies, 1986; Pitts, 1990), it tends to be ignored in more recent accounts (Haines and Drakeford, 1996). Yet tracking left a legacy, contributing to the emergence in modern youth justice of two ostensibly divergent practices - mentoring and electronic monitoring. This paper aims mainly to document a neglected aspect of youth justice history but it also considers the way in which the tracking ideal lives on, and has been reconfigured in a more genuinely surveillant - electronic - form.