A bill to create gambling treatment diversion courts (GTDCs) is starting to make its way through the New Jersey Assembly. On Monday, March 20, the Tourism, Gaming & the Arts Committee voted unanimously to advance bill A420 after considering testimony from various stakeholders.
These stakeholders included retired judge Cheryl Moss, who presided over a similar court producing successful results in Nevada. She was kind enough to correspond with Bonus on the subject, writing:
New Jersey has had prolific success in generating revenue for the State through expansion of gaming, sports betting, and online gaming. With this rapid growth, New Jersey is headed in the right direction to keep pace with problem gambling concerns. The GTDC bill is not anti-casino whatsoever, it is designed to save lives, to keep families together, and to get restitution to the victims while also rehabilitating the problem gambler so they don’t go through a revolving door life of crime.
GTDCs provide an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders whose crimes were motivated by gambling addiction. Instead of going to prison, participants commit to abstaining from gambling, participating in a court-directed rehabilitation program and making restitution payments to the victims of their crimes.
The advantages compared to incarceration include the following:
- Higher chance of restitution for victims
- Lower cost to the state
- Higher chance of rehabilitation for the convicted
Bill A420 would establish three courts as a pilot project lasting three years. These would cover the northern, central and southern regions of the state. Following the three-year period, the Administrative Office of the Courts would have the power to decide whether or not to continue the program.
The bill now sits with the Appropriations Committee, which will assess its financial impact.
Legislation is a Long-Term Effort
New Jersey’s effort to legislate treatment courts is now in its third year. It came about because Assemblyman Dan Benson observed a session of Moss’s court in Nevada and liked what he saw.
Benson is one of the current bill’s three sponsors, alongside fellow Democrats Ralph Caputo and Anthony Verrelli. Sen. Nicholas Scutari has filed an identical bill in the Senate but is still earlier in the legislative process.
There are still many steps remaining for the bill to become law. Once it emerges from the Appropriations Committee, it will get additional readings in the Assembly and hopefully a vote. The companion bill in the Senate would also have to pass, and then Gov. Phil Murphy could sign the final bill into law.
Despite the long road ahead, Moss sees the unanimous committee vote as a positive sign. She’s also optimistic that the effort is in good hands.
Assemblyman Chairman Caputo is a former gaming executive and he sponsored A-420 which means he has vast experience with what would be beneficial for the citizens of New Jersey. It’s been a long process as the bill was first introduced over two years ago, but I am optimistic that the GTDC bill will be one part of the solution to address problem gambling in criminal settings.
Judicial Creation Provides a Faster Route
The Nevada GTDC is the oldest court still operating. It wasn’t the first, however.
The first gambling court in the US was a pilot project in New York. It was created as an individual effort by Judge Mark Farrell in 2001. He ran the court until his retirement in 2013, but its operations stopped at that time. (New York now has a Problem Gambling Advisory Council which may help re-establish GTDCs in the state.)
Those first two projects illustrate the two different approaches to creating GTDCs:
- Mandating their creation through legislation, or
- As a proactive effort originating in the judicial system
Moss and fellow judge Scott J. Frederick penned a paper in 2022 laying out why judicial creation is superior. She summarized its conclusions to Bonus:
Judicial creation is the preferred choice because there are fewer hurdles and the judges know best how to manage their courts, especially those with specialty court backgrounds.
Those hurdles can make the legislative approach very long. Even if bill A420 becomes law in 2023, its implementation could take many more years. For instance, the bill mandating the creation of the Nevada court passed in 2009, but the program didn’t launch until 2018.
In other words, legislation can force the judicial system to act eventually, but an eager judiciary can make it happen much faster without involving lawmakers.
Such is the case in Ohio, which beat New Jersey to become the third state to attempt a GTDC program. Its treatment court got underway on Jan 1, 2023, under the leadership of Judge Brendan J. Sheehan.
The reason New Jersey is taking the slower legislative approach is that lawmakers were the ones to initiate it. Had it not been for Assm. Benson’s positive impressions of Moss’s efforts, New Jersey might not be one of the states leading the way on this issue.
By contrast, the Ohio effort emerged from years of discussions between the judiciary, the Ohio Lottery Commission, and the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addictions Services.
Reluctance From the NJ Administrative Office of the Courts
Although legislation isn’t Moss’s preferred approach, it may be for the best that it’s the path being taken in New Jersey. Judicial creation seems unlikely, given that the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is among the bill’s critics.
Speaking to the committee on behalf of the AOC, Andrea Johnson explained the reasoning. She said that while the AOC sees the value in GTDCs, it worries about creating a new program at a time when judges are in short supply. The AOC’s preferred solution would be to allow those with gambling problems to enroll in the existing diversion courts for drug offenders.
Moss is lukewarm on that idea:
The fundamental difference with NJ Recovery Court is that if gambling is blended in with drug and alcohol recovery court programs, a specialty court judge would perhaps not be specialized solely as to gambling disorders. Gambling addiction is unique in that it has financial components, it comes with stigma and shame, and NJ would need a judge who understands this topic well, understands what goes through the mind of a gambler, and understands that it is different from drug and alcohol in some ways.
She’s also unconvinced that judicial vacancies hurt the plan’s viability. She says the program would be small in scale, requiring only three judges, each of whom would hear perhaps five to ten additional cases every two weeks. Based on her experience in Nevada, she says this would “not make too much of an impact” on their regular caseload.
In any event, she feels there’s enough support for the idea for the bill to pass, notwithstanding the AOC’s objections.
While there is a shortage of judges in New Jersey and impending additional judges soon to retire, the objection raised by AOC did not impact the unanimous vote to pass the bill out of committee.
New Jersey Gambling Courts Would Build on Past Successes
Participation in a diversion court program is also a lengthy experience for the participants. However, the rate of good outcomes is high.
Moss’s Nevada court saw nine participants enroll while she was there. Of those, six have completed the program, while two failed to comply and were re-arrested. That 75% graduation rate in the early going compares favorably to that of most drug courts, which range between 50% to 70%. The remaining participant is on track to graduate by December, and Moss says four or five more have enrolled since her departure.
As for the fledgling program in Ohio, Bonus spoke with Karen Russo, who spearheaded that effort. She retired in September after a 30-year career with the Ohio Lottery Commission (OLC).
Though the judicial creation process is quick, convincing the courts to undertake it can be time-consuming. For Russo, it was the work of a decade. She was Director of Responsible Gambling at the OLC for the final 12 years of her career and spent much of that advocating for the creation of GTDCs. She says she first heard of the idea from New York’s Judge Farrell at a conference in 2012.
Once the ball is rolling, though, it rolls quickly. Russo praised the efforts of the court in Cuyahoga County and said the top priority is developing the workforce to run the program.
Things have moved very quickly. The primary focus is and was workforce development. We were able to train all the probation officers virtually. We were able to do continuous training for staff and we’re expanding that throughout all the judicial conferences in the state, including an upcoming one with over 600 judges in attendance.
Already, it’s on track to be a far bigger program than Moss’s court in Nevada. Russo said nine candidates were referred to the court in the first five weeks. Of these, seven met the criteria for enrollment in the program. There’s no timeline for graduation yet, but Russo says the court has the capacity for up to 50 participants and could be expanded to handle more if needed.