Program completion and targeting of high risk drug users key to success of MERIT program

April 2015
McSweeney, T., Hughes, C. E., Ritter, A. (2015). Tackling ‘drug-related’ crime: Are there merits in diverting drug-misusing defendants to treatment? Findings from an Australian case study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0004865814555773

The problem

The Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) program was one of five diversionary initiatives to emerge from the recommendations of the New South Wales (NSW) Drug Summit in 1999. By June 2011, MERIT operated in 65 NSW Local Courts (potentially available to over four-fifths of charged defendants) and had received over 25,700 referrals. No comprehensive analysis exists of the impact of the program on reducing reconvictions.

What we did

This study sought to assess the impact of the pre-sentence Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) diversion program in New South Wales, Australia on offending in the 12 months following exposure to the intervention. The comparative design involved an experimental group of 1017 defendants who exited the MERIT program in 2008 and a comparison group of 1017 offenders identified as drug misusers following completion of a Corrective Services’ risk and needs assessment and sentencing in a New South Wales Local Court without MERIT. The outcome measures were: the rate, volume and seriousness of known re-offending.

What we found

There was no association between exposure to MERIT and reduced rates of reconviction at 12 months. Among MERIT participants, the factor with the largest effect on risk of recidivism was offence type and program completion. Of those belonging to the MERIT group, program completion was found to have a significant protective effect against recidivism: those not completing the program had a 50% greater risk of re-offending within one-year compared to program completers.

What this means for policy

These findings point towards the importance of ensuring that participants are retained within the program and targeting interventions to:  higher risk user groups (i.e. stimulant and narcotic users); those involved in income-generating property crime and defendants with more extensive criminal histories.