Maybe He's Depressed: Mental Illness as a Mitigating Factor for Drug Offender Accountability


  • The author wishes to thank Robert Emerson, Jim Holstein, John Heritage, and the late Melvin Pollner for their feedback on this article. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Award and the American Sociological Association's Minority Fellowship Program.

Leslie Paik is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the City College, City University of New York. Her research focuses on judicial decision making, therapeutic jurisprudence, juvenile/criminal justice, and social control. Please direct all correspondence to


Given the often perplexing relationship between mental illness and substance abuse among offenders, this article looks at how a juvenile drug court staff's presumptions of a youth's mental illness affect its decision-making process. Based on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork at a Southern California juvenile drug court, this article uses Manzo and Travers's “law in action” approach to analyze how the staff readjusts its application of normal remedies (a concept developed by Robert Emerson) designed to respond to a youth's noncompliance when it suspects mental illness may be influencing the youth's actions. In doing so, it highlights how court staff's considerations of youth mental disorders arise out of its everyday work practices. Furthermore, the article discusses how staff negotiations around a youth's mental illness create tensions for the juvenile drug court's accountability-based model of therapeutic jurisprudence, because assessments of mental illness tend to mitigate responsibility for a youth's behavior.