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Promoting compliance, ‘recovery’ and ‘desistance’: Comparative case studies of pre-sentence diversion schemes for drug misusing arrestees in Australia and England

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Colonial Foundation Trust

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Mr Timothy McSweeney
Research Fellow
Project Main Description: 

There is a growing body of research evidence demonstrating the impact of a range of pre-sentence diversion options at engaging substance misusing defendants in treatment, and reducing illicit drug use and ‘related’ offending in both Australian and British contexts. However, given their main focus on measuring and quantifying impacts, this work necessarily tends to be largely a-theoretical and virtually silent when it comes to explaining the dynamic and interactive processes which might facilitate or hinder these positive outcomes.  The broader justifications for and potential value of the research centre on its uniquely comparative and multi-disciplinary nature; bringing together public health, criminological and socio-legal perspectives on both the processes and outcomes of attempts to facilitate both engagement and behaviour change amongst drug misusers coming into contact with the criminal justice system in different jurisdictions and settings.

Project Collaborators: External: 

Paul Turnbull (Institute for Criminal Policy Research, University of London)


Using two models of pre-sentence diversion as case studies – one ‘voluntary’ scheme in Australia, the other a ‘compulsory’ model in England known as ‘Tough Choices’, this research seeks to better understand (in broad terms):

  • How different participants in these settings define and measure ‘success’
  • To what extent the schemes deliver on these outputs and outcomes
  • How aspects of policy, program design and delivery impact (either positively or negatively) on outcomes
  • How processes might be refined and adapted in order to further improve outcomes.


More specifically, the first aim of the proposed research is to assess, using various administrative datasets, the extent to which these two pre-sentence diversion schemes:

  1. secure ‘formal’ compliance (as measured by program engagement and completion rates);
  2. promote ‘recovery’ from dependent drug use (defined as the absence of, or a progressive reduction in, the number and intensity of substance use related problems); and
  3. encourage ‘desistance’ from crime (defined as a cessation in offending, or a significant reduction in the frequency and seriousness of offending).

The next phase of the research will involve in-depth interviews with various purposively sampled participants to identify and understand the mechanisms through which these outputs and outcomes achieved. For example, what strategies do these schemes employ to engage and retain different types of participant, such as narcotic and stimulant users, in treatment long enough for them to derive any benefit? How do these interventions affect behavioural change with an intractable group, often within a short period of time? 

Design and Method: 

The research will utilise both quantitative and qualitative methods and make use of a range of primary and secondary data sources. The main methodological approaches to be adopted in each site in order to answer the key research questions posed by this thesis include:

  • content analysis of existing documentation (e.g. in order to explore the extent of adherence to established best practice principles, and consistency between stated policy and actual practice between sites);
  • linkage of existing administrative datasets to assess the extent of formal compliance, recovery and desistance (e.g. in NSW this will involve utilising data from the MERIT Information Management System (MIMS), the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research Re-Offending Database (ROD) and, for the purposes of assembling a comparison group, NSW Correctional Services’ Offender Information Management System (OIMS) data); and
  • in-depth qualitative interviews with defendants (N=30) and professional stakeholders (N=30) to illuminate and better understand related processes and mechanisms in each setting.

This thesis, submitted for examination at the end of August 2013, provided a conceptual and empirical analysis of two forms of pre-sentence drug diversion operating in England and Australia. The goals of the thesis were two-fold. Firstly, to examine the extent to which each program was effective in promoting compliance, recovery and desistance from crime. Secondly, to better understand how and why aspects of program theory, implementation and delivery aided or impeded the achievement of each objective.

Secondary analysis of eight linked administrative datasets and primary data from 65 semi-structured interviews with respondents in England (N=29) and Australia (N=36) were subject to theoretically driven analysis in order to test the relevance and application of three existing typologies of compliance, recovery and desistance processes to a diversionary context.

Rates of formal compliance across the two approaches were moderate, and not in the direction anticipated. While there was evidence of reductions in illicit drug use and related problems, there were equivocal findings on the ability of these approaches to tackle drug dependency, or facilitate behavioural change via engagement with treatment. Most importantly, while there were significant reductions in the rate, volume and seriousness of re-offending among those exposed to both programs, equivalent reductions were observed for matched drug misusers not engaging with these interventions.  

The two approaches encountered challenges in applying concepts of compliance, recovery and desistance into practice, due to factors linked to policy, implementation and delivery. Key implications for ‘drug-related’ diversion include the need for theoretically and empirically informed adaptations to the type of offenders targeted by these programs, and a sharper focus on addressing structural and environmental factors which may inhibit behaviour change.



Preliminary results have been disseminated via three conference presentations:

‘Diverting drug-related offenders through the NSW MERIT System’. Paper presented at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre Annual Symposium, Sydney, Australia. September 2013.

‘Tackling drug-related crime: Are there merits in diverting drug misusing defendants to treatment’. Paper presented at the 6th Australasian Drug and Alcohol Strategy Conference, Sydney, Australia. March 2013.

‘Assessing the impact of a policy for the compulsory testing and assessment of drug-using arrestees on ‘related’ offending’. Paper presented at the 5th annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy. Utrecht, Netherlands. May 2011.



McSweeney, T. and Martire, K. A. (2010) The Magistrate’s Early Referral Into Treatment Program: 2008 Annual Report. Parramatta: NSW Department of Justice and Attorney General http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/cpd/merit.nsf/vwFiles/2008_Annual_Report_FINAL.pdf/$file/2008_Annual_Report_FINAL.pdf

Thesis: Mcsweeney, Tim Hughes (2014) Promoting compliance, recovery and desistance : comparative case studies of pre-sentence diversion schemes for drug misusing arrestees in Australia and England. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

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