The MERIT Program
Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment (MERIT) is a voluntary program in New South Wales that temporarily diverts adults with drug dependencies into supervised drug treatment, giving them a chance to work towards rehabilitation as part of the bail process. This article outlines what is involved in the MERIT program.
What type of treatment is provided in the MERIT program?
MERIT provides treatment that is tailored to an individual’s needs. This includes detoxification, methadone and other pharmacotherapies, residential rehabilitation, individual and group counselling, case management, and welfare support and assistance.
A person accepted into MERIT will discuss the type of treatment that is suitable with the MERIT team.
When is the MERIT program an Option?
MERIT is available to defendants appearing in matters that can be finalised in the Local Court. For a list of Local Courts that offer the MERIT program, please visit the Lawlink MERIT webpage on statewide coverage.
Am I Eligible to Participate in the MERIT program?
The MERIT program targets people with a drug problem who satisfy the following criteria:
- Over the age of 18
- Suitable for release on bail
- Have a demonstrable illicit drug problem (excluding alcohol, except at selected courts)
- Willing to consent to a drug treatment program
- Not involved in current or pending offences related to physical violence or sexual assault, or matters that will be heard in the District Court
- Deemed suitable for drug treatment and have a treatable problem
- Approved to participate in the program by the Magistrate
What is the Process of the MERIT program?
The MERIT process is outlined below.
A person may be referred to the MERIT program before a formal plea is entered. A referral can be made by magistrates, police, the person or their lawyer.
Court proceedings will be adjourned while the MERIT team assesses whether the person is suited to and would benefit from the program. The assessment is conducted by health teams assigned to participating NSW Local Courts. The assessment focuses on a broad range of areas, such as substance use history, physical health, mental health, and housing, education, training and employment issues.
If the person is not assessed as suitable for participation in MERIT, they will return to court and have their matter dealt with in the usual way. If they are assessed as suitable, they will return to the court that referred them and the Magistrate will impose a bail condition that they abide by the reasonable directions of the MERIT team. If they breach this condition or commit a further offence during the MERIT program, the MERIT team may notify the court and they could be excluded from participating in the program.
Participation in a treatment program agreed to by a person and their MERIT Caseworker usually lasts 3 months. During this time, the person will receive the support and guidance of their MERIT Caseworker. While on the program, a person must appear before the Magistrate, usually at 6-week intervals. The MERIT team provides the court with updates of their progress.
Upon the conclusion of the program, a person will return to court and enter a plea if they have not already done so. Magistrates are provided with a comprehensive report regarding the person’s participation in treatment. Where appropriate, the report will make recommendations to assist them in maintaining and continuing their rehabilitation. If they are convicted the Magistrate will take into account their completion of the MERIT program in sentencing.
Failure to Respond to a Treatment Program Will Not Be Dealt With By Punitive Measures
If the person is convicted of offences, any penalty imposed will relate to that offence only, not to any failure to respond to treatment.
Can the MERIT program Reduce My Sentence?
The impact of completing MERIT on a person’s sentence is ultimately at the discretion of the Magistrate.
A study by the NSW Judicial Commission, MERIT: A Survey of Magistrates, revealed strong judicial support for the program:
- 97.1% of magistrates expressed the belief that participation in MERIT reduces the likelihood of further offending.
- When the magistrates were asked about the weight given at sentencing for satisfactory completion of the MERIT treatment program, most magistrates described satisfactory participation in MERIT as: “significant” (35.1%), “a great deal/ weight” (21.6%) or “considerable” (13.5%). Other respondents described the effect on sentence in terms of a “sentence discount” or “a drop back in the penalty.”
This suggests that a person’s completion of MERIT has great potential to reduce their sentence.
If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.