For quite a while now I have considered that a great inconsistency in our justice system in NSW, is the treatment of defendants with obvious alcohol problems, as distinct to those with issues with other substances.
The Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment, or ‘MERIT,’ program has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
This program offers drug treatment to defendants with illicit drug use problems, if they are motivated to do so on a voluntary basis, prior to the defendant being sentenced. If the defendant successfully completes the program, this is both considered and looked upon favourably, by the presiding Magistrate when the defendant is finally sentenced.
The aims of the program is to break the drug/crime cycle that engulfs so many people who have illicit drug problems, by steering them into treatment that will hopefully allow them to successfully address their drug use.
By addressing the individual’s issues, society in turn will benefit, by a reduction in crime, a reduction in crime related costs borne by the tax payer, and safer communities generally.
The program is currently available in 64 NSW Courts, and since its inception over 13,000 participants have undertaken the program, with nearly 8,500 of those completing the program successfully.
The inconsistency that I referred to earlier, is that in my opinion alcohol is, without doubt:
- the most harmful drug in our society
- the most widespread drug in our society
- and the drug that causes the most collateral damage in our society
Yet defendants with alcohol problems only have not been legally eligible to participate in the MERIT program.
From domestic violence to sexual assault, from malicious damage to drink driving, alcohol is the ubiquitous presence. But offenders with a drinking problem could not access MERIT.
That has now changed.
On 26 July 2010, the NSW Attorney General, Mr John Hatzistergos, announced that the MERIT program would be expanded to include alcohol treatment on a trial basis.
Mr Hatzistergos stated, “Evidence shows that this program works to break the drug/crime cycle. We hope to replicate this success in treating defendants with serious alcohol dependency.”
“The expansion of alcohol MERIT will provide a greater number of defendants the opportunity to address the underlying causes of their criminal behaviour. By addressing the defendant’s alcohol problem, the program may also address what is often the primary reason behind their offending behaviour” he said.
Although the program will only be commenced in 9 courts across NSW initially, it is hoped that it will be quickly expanded to match the current coverage of the current MERIT program relating to illicit drugs, and in fact beyond.
My fear is that, given the enormous problems society has with the misuse of alcohol, and the extremely high percentage of criminal cases that come before the courts that involve the use of alcohol, this program may be swamped.
Time will tell whether the system will have the resources to cope with the demand, and therefore potential participants, miss out.
Still, I think this is very much a step in the right direction, to addressing not only an inconsistency in our justice system, but also a step towards making our communities a great deal safer, and ultimately saving tax payer money.