There’s a lot of support in the US for the idea of gambling treatment diversion courts (GTDCs). Unfortunately, there’s less consensus on how to go about implementing them.
One possibility that’s sometimes floated is to put the creation of specialty gambling courts into gambling expansion bills. That’s something that New York lawmakers might take note of.
After all, New York has just legalized online sports betting and authorized three new downstate casinos. It’s also high on the list of states which have tried recently to legalize online casinos and are likely to try again in 2023.
The online casino effort represents another opportunity to include language about a New York GTDC program. The odds are against such provisions making it into the bill, however. And that may not be a bad thing.
Bonus spoke with Judge Cheryl Moss – one of the foremost advocates for GTDCs in the US – and New York Senator Joseph Addabbo about gambling courts and the New York online casino legalization effort. Neither is of the opinion that tying the two efforts together is the best approach for the Empire State.
The Case for Specialty Courts for Gambling
The idea behind specialty courts is that rehabilitation is often preferable to simple punishment. Such courts for drug offenders already exist in many states. Gambling treatment diversion courts expand on that idea by offering the same alternative to incarceration for those whose gambling addiction drives them to commit non-violent crimes like fraud or theft.
These courts come into play at the sentencing stage after the accused pleads guilty to such a crime. Rather than receiving a prison sentence, they commit to court-supervised rehabilitation and to making restitution payments to the victims.
Participants must abstain from gambling and agree to allow the court to monitor their activities to ensure this. At the same time, they enter a rehabilitation program under the court’s direction. In return, they get to stay out of prison so long as they adhere to the rules of the program.
In a paper for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Gambling Law Journal, Judge Moss and co-author Scott Frederick explain that such courts have a twofold purpose:
(1) to promote case management within the court system by expediting processing and disposition, thus increasing trial capacity; and
(2) to reduce crime by addressing addiction and its underlying issues through therapeutic approaches.
It’s not just that this approach is more humane for the offenders and less likely to result in recidivism. It also saves the state money in the long run by avoiding the expense of incarceration. Finally, it’s better for the victims of the crimes because staying out of prison allows the offenders to work and repay at least part of the money they owe.
Addabbo: Focus on Prevention First
Bonus asked Sen. Addabbo whether he’d consider including provisions to create such a court in his NY online casino bill next year. His response was that he might back such an effort down the road but that it would be premature to do so immediately.
Addabbo said that the state needs to “put gambling addiction at the forefront.” His feeling, however, is that gambling expansion bills should focus on the pre-addiction part of the problem.
He stressed that regulation is the most effective way to address the harms of gambling. When it comes to gambling expansion, he says that the emphasis is on creating regulations that minimize the number of additional people who become addicted in the first place.
That means doing consumer education, mandating the use of responsible gambling tools by operators, perhaps putting restrictions on marketing, and so forth.
Addabbo also emphasized that gambling opponents can actually make good allies in that regard.
When you’re thinking about what language to put in your legislation, it’s important that you include your detractors. They’re not necessarily happy that we’re trying to do this, but they appreciate that we’re consulting with them and addressing their concerns.
He also sees such critics as important for holding the government to its promises after the fact.
Your job isn’t done when you pass the legislation. You monitor the situation and you react.
Research Leads to Funding, Which Leads to Programs
As for dealing with the consequences for those who do become addicted, Addabbo says that the state needs to get a handle on the situation and react accordingly. All government programs cost money, and specialty courts are no exception. Selling his fellow legislators on the need for such courts will require an assessment of the situation after legalization.
He told Bonus:
If you’re going to invest, it needs to be justified by the data. Once we have that data, we’ll use it to justify funding for whatever programs are needed. But you have to show that there’s a clear need.
To that end, Addabbo has another piece of legislation pending. SB 409A would take a portion of the state’s annual fees on slot machines and allocate it to create a Problem Gambling Advisory Council. Addabbo says that one of the council’s first tasks would be to define its own scope of operation, but that could well include assessing the prospects for a GTDC program.
The bill has received the approval of both halves of the legislature and awaits Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature.
The Funding Issue
One other complication is particular to New York. The state’s gambling laws stipulate that 95% of all gross gaming revenue must go to education.
That doesn’t leave a lot left over for gambling treatment programs or specialty courts. Addabbo says it’s possible to “siphon off” fixed sums of money before that percentage is calculated.
A bill could take, say, $15 million annually off the top to support a particular program, such as GTDCs. Knowing how much to take, however, is another topic that requires research and an understanding of the situation on the ground.
Online sports betting in New York only went live this year, in January. According to Judge Moss, calls to problem gambling help lines are up 40%. However, experience in other states has shown that a part of such increases comes from confused gamblers who mistake the hotline for a customer service or technical support number.
Assessing the extent of the problem will require time, especially if online casinos are likely to be added to the mix soon. Judge Moss says that based on population, New York should expect somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 participants in the first years of a GTDC program.
Regardless, she says that lawmakers shouldn’t balk at the potential costs. In an email exchange with Bonus, she stressed the high costs of incarceration in New York: $69,355 annually per inmate. Keeping even just a few dozen people out of prison would be worth millions of dollars annually.
Therefore, investments in alternatives to carceral justice should pay for themselves in the long run. As Moss and Frederick put it in the UNLV law journal article:
Compared to traditional case processing and supervision, treatment courts have higher investment costs due to the array of services involved. However, the savings associated are far greater given the reduction in crimes, rearrests, and incarcerations.
Hard to Put a Price Tag on Treatment Courts
The costs to run such a program are hard to quantify, but they aren’t particularly large.
Judge Moss was in charge of the most successful US gambling treatment court for most of its history. The Nevada GTDC is approaching its fourth anniversary. It was established by Judge Linda Bell in 2018, but Moss presided over it for two years until her retirement in 2020.
(Moss has since come out of retirement and now acts as a Senior Judge. She says she may even get the chance to preside over the GTDC again.)
She says that the Nevada court began with “zero” up-front funding and that “the Nevada court system did not incur additional costs for me to hold court sessions for one hour every two weeks during business hours.”
In principle, participants must pay $1,500 for a court assessment and then cover the costs of their own treatment.
In practice, however, restitution to victims takes precedence, and few participants can afford both. According to Moss, that often means waiving the assessment fee and using grants to pay the cost of treatment. In Nevada, these grants come out of a general gambling treatment fund which comes from a special tax on slot machines. That fund is roughly $1 million annually, though GTDC grants are only a small part of that. Most of the money goes to the treatment of gamblers seeking help of their own accord.
On the benefits side, there are a lot of intangibles in addition to the savings on incarceration. Moss points to the social benefits of “preserving families, saving lives, lowering recidivism, and breaking the cycle of addiction.”
The Nevada experiment has been a big success in that regard. Most studies of drug treatment courts show “graduation” rates in the range of 50% to 70%. The Nevada GTDC has had 16 participants so far, of whom 14 successfully completed the program, a success rate of 87.5%.
Legislation Isn’t Always the Best Approach
Given her background, is Judge Moss disappointed that Sen. Addobbo and his peers aren’t likely to put language about a GTDC into his online casino bill? Not at all. In fact, she doesn’t think legislation is the right approach to establish a court in New York in the first place.
Per the UNLV article, there was no choice in Nevada other than to establish the treatment court using legislation. However, it stresses that this was a slow process. The relevant bill passed in 2009, but it took nine years to get the court off the ground.
Although there was no choice in Nevada, Moss says that legislation isn’t necessary in some other states. And where it isn’t necessary, skipping it may be a time-saver. She told Bonus:
Sometimes creating a GTDC is easier by having the judges create the program through their specialty courts, such as drug courts, versus legislation which can take a long time.
GTDCs are Possible in NY Without Legislation
Regarding New York, she points out that it was actually the first state to try such a court. Judge Mark Farrell ran a GTDC pilot project out of Amherst starting in 2001. Though it no longer exists, it demonstrates that it’s possible for NY specialty court judges to extend existing drug court programs to cover gambling addiction without the need for special legislation.
Like Addabbo, Moss also stresses the importance of gathering data and applying it when establishing such programs.
I think the NY PG Council is a great idea and a great start. We created the Nevada GTDC Court without an advisory council, likely because our situation was different where we had a judge (me) and clinicians (gambling counselors) and specialty court personnel (Nevada has excellent specialty courts program and won several awards) already in place and we knew we were the gambling capital of the world so we had already an expertise base.NY is smart to start creating their expertise base through their advisory council so they will be better prepared to find solutions to address the needs of the 1-2% of the most vulnerable gamblers and to also establish prevention programs, especially for young children who are exposed to advertisements and their parents’ gambling.
The Effort Continues in New Jersey
If and when the time comes for another New York judge to follow in Judge Farrell’s footsteps, they may have an example to follow that’s closer than Nevada.
Since her retirement, Judge Moss has been part of an initiative pushing for the creation of such courts in neighboring New Jersey. New Jersey is, of course, the longest-running legal market for online casinos in the US.
(Several gambling journalists, myself included, are part of an Advisory Group that Judge Moss and clinical consultant George Mladenetz established to help with the effort.)
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that effort somewhat, as it did many other things. However, Moss is optimistic about the prospects going forward. She told Bonus:
We just had a “for discussion only” hearing before the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee last week. I testified and so did the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (CCGNJ) and Rutgers University Center for Gambling Studies, both are mentioned in the bill. So there’s movement. And the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely follow suit in the coming months.
Any state with numerous legal gambling options and existing drug courts might benefit from considering the possibility too. In addition to New York and New Jersey, good candidate states include all of those that have legal online casinos already or are on the shortlist to legalize them in the next few years: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, West Virginia, Illinois and Indiana.