The Construction of Truth and Lies in Drug Court

teendrugAn article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography reports on a long-term study of how drug-using offenders tell truth and lies in a US drug court. Mackinem (the paper’s first author) is a member of drug court staff, and the discussion of how he and his co-author negotiated the challenges of ‘participant observation’ is as interesting as the results of their observations.

In the course of a multiyear investigation of three drug courts in a southeastern state, we explored how drug-court staff decides whether clients are telling the truth or lying when the staff confronts them with a positive test for drugs… The drug-court staff’s construction of truths and lies is one occasion of many when staff members create moral identities for their clients and for those applying to be clients

They found that when confronted with a positive result, a third of clients responded with denials (32%), while the other two thirds admitted to using drugs. A variety of excuses were put forward as mitigaiton, with personal stress and the influence of peers being the most common. The authors argue that the way in which drug court staff treat lies by drug-using offenders is bound up with the creation of ‘moral identities’ for the offenders:

The drug-court staff’s judgment as to whether clients are telling the truth or lying when confronted with a positive test for drugs is one occasion of many when the staff creates moral identities for its clients and for those applying to be clients. Are the drug-using offenders morally worthy drug addicts attempting to become sober, or are they unworthy criminals with no willingness to kick their habit? Staffers increasingly make these judgments as they evaluate the potential of drug-using offenders to participate successfully in drug court, as they monitor the progress of drug court clients in the program, and as they assess the performance of clients in deciding whether the clients will graduate or be removed from the program (page 244).

Sage Journals is currently offering open access to all journals, so you can read the article for free until the end of November 2007.

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Photo credit: Kr4gin, Creative Commons License


Through a multiyear participant observation study in three southeastern drug courts, we explore how staff members react to clients’ responses when confronted with positive tests for illicit drug use. Within their professional beliefs about drug addiction, treatment, and testing, staff members interpret the clients’ responses as truths or lies, though some lies are worse than others and some truths are better than others. The staff’s evaluations of clients’ responses are part of their construction of moral identities for drug offenders. Staff members produce the client outcomes that some observers and evaluators attribute to client characteristics or conduct. To understand how staff members produce organizational outcomes as they manage clients, interpretive studies that look beyond the most public arenas of drug and other problem courts need to be conducted as they have been in exploring other service agencies.

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