Tony Blair has said he was "misguided" to believe public spending on rundown areas was the only answer to anti- social behaviour and problem families.
Mr Blair says he has changed his thinking since the 1990s
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said his "incomplete" analysis in the 1990s led to the wrong policies.
Early and tough intervention was needed with a small number of "highly dysfunctional" families who did not respond to investment, said Mr Blair.
He said Tory leader David Cameron was now repeating his mistake of the 1990s.
However, shadow home secretary David Davis said Mr Blair was "simply deceiving himself about the facts of life in Britain" and that the rate of family breakdown had increased under the Labour government.
"It is undoubtedly true that youngsters from broken homes are more likely to get into trouble, to be involved in anti-social behaviour and, in some cases, to be involved in crime," he said.
Mr Cameron's recent speech on "civility" made a similar analysis to that of Mr Blair in 1992, assuming the problem of anti-social behaviour and lack of respect was with "society as a whole", said the prime minister.
But after 10 years in power, during which he had "immersed" himself in the subject, Mr Blair said he no longer agreed with that view.
He said crime had gone down under Labour and investment had "transformed" city centres and public services.
But while regeneration was the right thing to do, it had not dealt with the "small and unrepresentative minority" of families creating havoc in some communities, he wrote.
BBC political correspondent, Sean Curran, said it was not the first time Tony Blair had tried to refocus the political debate about families in order to concentrate on a hardcore of dysfunctional families.
Earlier this year he argued there was a "specific problem with specific families", rather than a general breakdown in society, and called for tough measures at a very early stage.
In Saturday's article Mr Blair said that he had realised during a visit to Moss Side in Manchester that while regeneration had improved the area and residents wanted to live there, "a small minority of out-of-control children and families still caused a huge problem, leeching into drugs and gangs".
He said Mr Cameron's argument that anti-social behaviour (ASB) laws had been counter-productive because they took responsibility away from people and put it in the hands of the state, was also "misguided".
"It's not the state that is using them, it is local communities, and where used, they make a real difference," Mr Blair said.
He said measures should be added to the ASB laws that would target "failing" families early even before offences had been committed or they had "become a menace".
"Instead of years with social services trying and failing to persuade them to change, those families... need to be made to change," he wrote.
"It is very tough. It is intrusive...but, for some of these families and their children, a nanny state is what they need - for their sake as much as for ours."
However, Mr Davis said Mr Blair had failed to do "anything effective" about his original calls to be 'tough on crime and the causes of crime'".
"It is no consolation to the relatives and the loved ones of those who have been assaulted, injured or even murdered on the streets of our cities to present their tragedies as unrepresentative dysfunctional episodes," he said.
"Indeed, it is a betrayal of their trust not to look at the causes of crime as he quite properly highlighted 15 years ago."