Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment: An overview of the MERIT program


The Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment (MERIT) program is a New South Wales court-based scheme targeting adult defendants appearing before a participating Local Court who have a demonstrable illicit drug problem, and who are motivated to participate in drug treatment and rehabilitation. It diverts adult defendants with primary drug problems on bail from Local Court to a three-month intensive drug treatment program. Between 2004 and 2008, almost 4,000 participants successfully completed the program. Over this period, Aboriginal defendants were referred in proportion to their rate of appearance in NSW Courts, however, they were significantly less likely to be accepted onto, or to successfully complete the program. This has been a consistent finding since the program’s inception. Despite this, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants who completed the program showed substantial gains over time. This includes significant improvements in drug dependence and psychological distress as well as general and mental health. A continued emphasis on resolving existing inequalities is important given the high levels of distress and dependence observed among MERIT participants at program entry and the potential for significant improvements for all participants who complete the program.

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