DRUG ABUSE AND CRIME
The Hon. LYNDA VOLTZ: My question is addressed to the Attorney General. What is the Government doing to break the drug-crime cycle?
The Hon. JOHN HATZISTERGOS: It is no secret that a large proportion of persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system have problems with drug abuse. Indeed, studies undertaken by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research have estimated that close to 70 per cent of persons detained in police custody test positive for at least one type of illicit drug and that each 10 per cent increase in the annual number of dependent heroin users leads to a corresponding increase of approximately 6 per cent in the robbery rate.
It is interesting that issues in relation to rehabilitation have been more prominent in recent times. They have even been embraced by the shadow Attorney General, Greg Smith. Indeed, over many years, we have been at the forefront of introducing a number of innovative court programs designed to break the drug-crime cycle. These include the Drug Court program, with proven results in reducing rates of reoffending; the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court; and the brand new court referral of eligible defendants into treatment, or CREDIT program, which will steer defendants at a high risk of reoffending into treatment programs and social services. Our commitment does not end there. Since its inception at Lismore Local Court in 2000, the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments have jointly funded a rapid expansion of the magistrates early referral into treatment, or MERIT, program. The program, which allows magistrates to refer offenders with drug problems into treatment prior to sentencing, now operates in 61 Local Courts across New South Wales, providing access for more than 80 per cent of offenders coming before magistrates.
An independent evaluation of the program by the Northern Rivers University Department of Rural Health, which is a joint initiative between the University of Sydney and Southern Cross University, found that after a year, offenders who complete MERIT are comparatively less likely to be charged with fresh offences. As part of our ongoing commitment to improving court programs, my department recently commissioned the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre based at the University of New South Wales to undertake two statistical studies: women in MERIT and Aboriginal participation in MERIT. These studies have made some interesting findings, providing some indications as to how we can further improve the program. These findings include that while women are just as likely as men to be accepted into MERIT they are 5 per cent less likely to complete the program. Aboriginal defendants are also less likely than non-Aboriginal defendants to successfully complete MERIT, but the female and Aboriginal participants who do complete MERIT show significant improvements with drug dependence issues, psychological distress and general and mental health.
It would seem that in order to better and more broadly realise the significant benefits of MERIT more work needs to be done to lift completion rates among female and Aboriginal defendants. That is why the statewide MERIT steering group, which includes representatives from a range of key government agencies, will be asked to review the findings of the studies and advise the Government as to how we can improve MERIT when it comes to female and Aboriginal defendants. The Government has a longstanding commitment to using the criminal justice system to assist offenders to get off drugs. Over many years, we have put in place a range of innovative programs, including MERIT, to help break the drug-crime cycle. But there is always room for improvement. These two studies recently undertaken by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre indicate that MERIT needs to work better when it comes to female and Aboriginal defendants. I am looking forward to receiving advice from the statewide MERIT steering group as to how we can best achieve this.