The Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment program (MERIT) is a voluntary rehabilitation program that is available to offenders in most local courts, including North Sydney Local Court. For offenders who have a confirmed substance abuse problem, the MERIT program provides an opportunity to seek treatment and address their issues, and can also lead to a less severe sentence being imposed.
What is the MERIT Program?
The MERIT program is a voluntary program that is intended to help reduce the likelihood of repeat offences by those who have a substance abuse problem, usually either drugs or alcohol. Through participating in a voluntary treatment program, offenders can benefit from a reduced sentence as well as the chance to get help for their substance abuse and change their lifestyle in the future.
The MERIT treatment program usually runs for three months, and sentencing is delayed until the completion of the program. The participant’s progress and engagement with the treatment plan are then taken into consideration when the final sentence is decided. The MERIT program has been running since 2003, and the evaluations of the results so far are encouraging, and show improved health and social outcomes for participants.
Who is eligible for MERIT?
There are a number of criteria that participants must fulfil for eligibility on to the MERIT program. These include:
- Being over the age of 18.
- Having a proven, demonstrable drug problem. Although some courts offer MERIT for alcohol abuse problems, currently North Sydney Local Court only offers MERIT for drug issues.
- Being willing to participate in the program for the full duration.
- Being eligible for release on bail.
- Not facing charges for violent or sexual offences or any offences that are due to be heard in the district court.
- Having approval for participation from a magistrate.
Once a defendant has been approved for MERIT, they will be expected to report regularly to the court and advise the magistrate of their progress. At the end of the program, their participation and the overall results of the treatment plan will be assessed, and this will be taken into consideration during sentencing.
To be eligible for MERIT defendants also need to be referred by a court that participates in the program. There are a large number of courts across NSW that participate in MERIT for drugs, and an increasing number for alcohol substance abuse issues as well.
What happens if a participant doesn’t complete the program?
If a defendant doesn’t complete the program or they don’t respond to the treatment, they will not face punitive measures. However, non-completion will be taken into consideration when the defendant is sentenced, which means that they may lose the benefits that participating in a treatment program might have given them towards reducing the severity of their sentence.
It is generally believed that successful participation in MERIT reduces the likelihood of re-offending, as the program tackles some of the underlying issues that may have contributed to the offence being committed.
If you are facing criminal charges at North Sydney Local Court and are not sure whether or not MERIT is suitable for you, a lawyer should be able to advise you and help you ask for a referral to the program if appropriate.