With the 2024 legislative session in full swing, New Jersey lawmakers will once again consider establishing a gambling treatment diversion court (GTDC) program for the state. Last year’s effort by Assemblyman Daniel Benson emerged successfully from an Assembly committee but didn’t progress in the Senate. This year, Sen. Nicholas Scutari was quick to file a new version of the bill to get the ball rolling in his half of the legislature.
GTDCs provide an alternative to incarceration for those convicted of minor crimes motivated by gambling addiction. Eligible participants avoid conventional sentencing but must complete a court-supervised rehabilitation program. To the extent possible, participants pay for their own treatment and make restitution payments to the victims of their crimes.
Similar programs exist in many states—including New Jersey—for crimes driven by drug addiction. In part, the goal is to offer second chances for those whose addictions have led to bad decisions. However, it also saves the state money and increases the chances that victims receive compensation. Housing prisoners is expensive, and they have no opportunities to earn money while in prison to pay anyone back.
New York was home to the first US GTDC. It was a pilot project, the brainchild of Judge Mark Farrell, who ran it from 2001 until his retirement in 2013. Judge Cheryl Moss, now also retired, followed Farrell’s lead in Nevada. That court opened in 2018 and continues to operate under the supervision of Judge Maria Gall.
Last year, Ohio became the third state with a GTDC program under the leadership of Judge Brendan Sheehan.
The High Cost of Incarceration in New Jersey
The New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) estimated last year that it would spend an average of $66,000 per capita to house prisoners in 2024. The direct cost of housing each additional prisoner in existing facilities is much smaller—about $4,000 per year. However, if those facilities exceed their capacity, the cost of opening a new facility—or reopening one previously shut down—is enormous.
Therefore, managing the prisoner population to avoid that necessity is a top priority for policymakers.
Moss, who ran the Nevada program until 2020, told Bonus that she expects a New Jersey GTDC to divert about 50 prisoners annually. DOC statistics show that the state has reduced its incarcerated population by 43%, from 23,123 in 2013 to 13,196 in 2023.
Compared to those figures, 50 people per year may seem like a drop in the bucket. However, a GTDC program would fit in with the larger philosophical shift towards expanding the judicial toolbox to include options other than incarceration. And 50 per year is still more than enough to offset the natural rise in imprisonment due to overall population growth—if population growth (0.32%) and incarceration (0.14%) rates remained constant, New Jersey would expect an organic increase of 42 prisoners per year.
What’s New in the 2024 GTDC Bill?
The substance of Scutari’s proposal this year is much the same as in previous years. However, the new bill does include a few tweaks.
The most significant of these is a data-sharing provision between the proposed GTDC program and the Center for Gambling Studies (CGS) at Rutgers University.
Researchers at Rutgers have been doing vital work to track the gambling behavior of New Jerseyans and assess the impact of gambling expansion. Last year’s Prevalence of Online and Land-Based Gambling in New Jersey report was a veritable treasure trove of data-driven insight for anyone with an interest in responsible gaming.
The 2024 GTDC bill would require the mental health professionals working with the program to use standardized intake and outtake screening forms provided by the CGS and supply it with the resulting data for research purposes. It also stipulates that the Administrative Office of the Courts would commission the CGS to produce an annual study on the program’s efficacy.
Another adjustment is the addition of Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey resources as a part of any GTDC treatment program. Finally, the decision of whether to deny potential participants who have already attempted the program once is now left to the courts. Previously, the exclusion of such candidates was automatic, but under the new bill, the judge can elect to make an exception.
New Jersey’s Mental Health Diversion Bill Becomes Law
One positive sign for this year’s effort is the success of a broader Mental Health Diversion Program bill last year. Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz’s proposal for a statewide mental health diversion system passed in December. The new program will unify several smaller ones already operating in certain counties and extend it to the rest of the state.
Eligible candidates for the mental health diversion program include those convicted of non-violent third- and fourth-degree crimes that the prosecution considers directly connected to a diagnosed mental disorder. Personality disorders are excluded, while substance abuse disorders are included only insofar as they co-occur with another disorder.
It’s not clear whether or how gambling addiction would fit in with this broader initiative. However, separate drug recovery courts already exist in New Jersey for those with substance abuse issues. Legislators created that statewide system in 2004.
Part of the conversation in 2024 may be whether gambling disorder fits in better with one or the other of these existing systems or warrants a third system of its own.
Washington Enters the Conversation
Meanwhile, Washington State has become the latest to join the push. That effort is in its infancy, but Rep. Chris Stearns has introduced HB 2055 to launch a GTDC program. Though lighter on detail than the longer-standing New Jersey bill, it’s similar in the broad strokes, proposing a one-to-three-year court-supervised rehabilitation program for those convicted of minor, non-violent crimes.
Stearns also spearheaded an effort to expand funding for gambling addiction treatment in the state last year. That bill made it through the House but was sent back by the Senate for revisions. It’s back in play again this year, and two bills complement one another. Both have the same goal of reducing gambling-related harm. And, while GTDC participants pay for their own treatment to the extent possible, the realities of gambling addiction mean that the state will often be called upon to pitch in while the gambler begins their road to recovery.