What is MERIT?
The Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment Program (MERIT) is a diversionary program based in selected NSW Local Courts. It provides an opportunity for eligible defendants with drug or alcohol problems to work towards rehabilitation as part of the bail process.
Participation in the MERIT Program is on a voluntary basis, and admission of guilt for the offence charged is not a requirement to take part. Treatment is generally provided prior to any pleas being made, with the court matters are adjourned until the conclusion of the Program.
WHO IS ELIGIBLE?
To be able to participate in the MERIT Program, the person must:
- Be an adult;
- Be eligible and suitable to be released on bail;
- Have a demonstrable drug or alcohol problem and appear in selected Local Courts (see below for a list of participating Courts);
- Deemed suitable for treatment and have a treatable problem;
- Be charged with a drug or alcohol-related offence ;
- Willing to consent to a treatment program; and
- Not involved in current or pending offences related to physical violence or sexual assault, or matters that will be heard in the District Court
WHERE DOES IT OPERATE?
The Drug MERIT Program operates in the following Local Courts: Albion Park, Ballina, Bankstown, Bathurst, Blacktown, Blayney, Broken Hill, Burwood, Byron Bay, Camden, Campbelltown, Casino, Cessnock, Coffs Harbour, Cooma, Downing Centre, Dubbo, Fairfield, Forbes, Gosford, Grafton, Hornsby, Junee, Katoomba, Kempsey, Kiama, Kogarah, Kyogle, Lismore, Liverpool, Maclean, Maitland, Manly, Milton, Mt Druitt, Mullimbimby, Murwillumbah, Muswellbrook, Newcastle, Newtown, North Sydney, Nowra, Oberon, Orange, Parkes, Parramatta, Penrith, Port Kembla, Port Macquarie, Queanbeyan, Raymond Terrace, Ryde, Singleton, Sutherland, Tamworth, Toronto, Tweed Heads, Wagga Wagga, Wauchope, Waverley, Wellington, Wilcannia, Wollongong, Woy Woy and Wyong.
The Alcohol MERIT operates in the following Local Courts: Bathurst, Broken Hill, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Manly, Orange, Wellington, Wilcannia, and Wollongong.
WHAT ARE THE STEPS INVOLVED?
- Referral to the MERIT Program can be made by a range of people, including the defendants themselves and their lawyers. Once a referral is made, an interview will be conducted by MERIT staff to assess the defendant’s suitability for the Program. In addition to the eligibility criteria listed above, the defendant’s motivation to engage in treatment and rehabilitation is taken into account.
- If a defendant is considered suitable for the Program, a treatment plan is developed that matches their specific needs. Available treatments include:
- Methadone and other pharmacotherapies;
- Residential rehabilitation;
- Individual and group counselling; and
- Case management and numerous forms of welfare support and assistance
Once an initial treatment plan is created, this information will be provided to the Magistrate. The Magistrate can then accept the defendant into the Program, and make the defendant’s involvement in treatment part of the bail conditions.
Participation in the MERIT Program usually lasts 3 month, and during this time the participant will:
- Participate in the treatment program as agreed to by both themselves and their Caseworker;
- Abide by all conditions of bail and the MERIT treatment plan;
- Have the support and guidance of their MERIT Caseworker; and
- Be required to appear before the Magistrate during this period, as the Magistrate hearing the case will require an update on treatment progress.
In cases where the participant disobeys their Program conditions, the Caseworker will consider the situation first, and may notify the Court in certain circumstances.
- At the conclusion of the treatment program, the defendant will return to the Court and asked to enter a plea (if they have not already done so). The Magistrate will be provided with a comprehensive report regarding the defendant’s participation in treatment, and where appropriate, future treatment recommendations. The case will then proceed normally, and if the defendant is convicted, the Magistrate may take into account the final MERIT report in sentencing.