New Jersey has an opportunity this year to set an important example for the rest of the country when it comes to harm reduction for problem gambling. A pair of bills in the Assembly and Senate would establish a pilot program for gambling treatment diversion courts in the state.
In a nutshell, these courts would provide supervision and treatment as an alternative to incarceration for those convicted of non-violent crimes, when committed by a person in the grips of gambling addiction. The bicameral effort consists of Bill A5604 in the Assembly, and S3976 in the Senate, which are similar in content and are expected to be combined into a single bill at a later stage of the process.
If the effort succeeds, it will make New Jersey the third state to try such an experiment. New York was the first, with a pilot program based in Amherst. That program ran from 2001 until Judge Mark Farrell, who presided over it, retired in 2013. It inspired a similar project in Nevada, which started in 2018 under the leadership of Judge Cheryl Moss.
Judge Moss retired following the court’s second anniversary last year, but unlike its predecessor in Amherst, the Nevada court did not shut down. It continues instead under the authority of Chief Judge Linda Bell. For her part, Judge Moss is now one of the core members of the NJ Gambling Court Initiative, and an advocate for similar efforts in other states.
NJ would be the first state with multiple gambling courts
New Jersey’s initiative is the most ambitious to date, as it would establish not one, but three such courts, according to the Assembly bill.
These would be located in the northern, central and southern regions of the state. Although New Jersey allows retail casinos only in Atlantic City, online gambling is legal everywhere in the state.
A5604’s sponsors are Reps. Ralph Caputo, Daniel Benson, Anthony Verrelli and Valerie Huttle, all Democrats. Caputo, Benson and Verrelli released the following statement about the effort:
We should be helping those with gambling addictions who have committed minor offenses, not imprisoning them. With the three locations throughout the State, we will be able to provide services for everyone referred to the Gambling Treatment Diversion Court Pilot Program.
Often, gambling addictions cause emotional and financial strain on families who simply want to help. These personal issues are often difficult for many to discuss with loved ones and can go ignored. This bill will give those in need an important resource to help overcome their tribulations.
Other states, such as Nevada, have used similar programs and have seen great success. It is time New Jersey adopted similar established practices to help residents and families dealing with a gambling addiction.
Gambling treatment courts a hot topic at SBC Digital
Last month, SBC held a digital conference on issues important to the North American sports betting industry. One of the panel discussions was titled Gambling Treatment Diversion Courts – a Roadmap Out of Nevada. It featured Judge Moss herself, plus:
- Alan Feldman, Distinguished Fellow at the UNLV International Gaming Institute, specializing in responsible gambling,
- Richard Schuetz, a prominent gaming and regulatory consultant, and
- Afshien Lashkari, representing the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE)
The discussion began in the logical place, namely why such courts are necessary. Gambling treatment diversion courts are one form of what’s known more generally as “specialty courts.”
These are set up with the understanding that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to justice. The intended function of a justice system is to reduce the incidence of crime, not to exact retribution on criminals. It seeks to accomplish these goals through a combination of deterrence and rehabilitation. However, systems that rely heavily on incarceration, including that in the US, tend to fail on the latter front.
This is especially true when it comes to crimes involving addiction or other psychiatric components. Experts such as the Canadian psychologist Gabor Maté have pointed out that incarceration is such a poor solution to such problems that it makes the system seem almost as if it were designed to make them worse.
As Feldman put it at SBC:
I have yet to see a study that doesn’t say that incarceration exacerbates problem gambling. In fact, it’s one of those rare moments where every single study about gamblers in prison or people in prison shows that problem gambling gets worse because you’re there in prison with little to do, so [gambling] is what you do.
Addictions are an attempt to fill a void
Online Poker Report reached out to responsible gambling consultant Jamie Salsburg to hear his thoughts on the initiative. Salsburg is the host of the After Gambling Podcast in addition to running his consulting agency Dyve.
His response was, like Feldman’s, to point to the work of other experts on the subject:
As someone who firmly believes in Johann Hari’s thesis that the root cause of addiction is disconnection, any programs that expedite the reconnection process should be explored.
Johann Hari is a journalist who focuses not specifically on gambling, but depression and addiction more generally. On the internet, at least, he is perhaps best known for a compelling and widely-shared TED talk he delivered on the subject of the US War on Drugs.
In it, he cites the research of another Canadian psychologist, Bruce Alexander, who famously did experiments on rats in which he offered them the choice between pure water, or water containing morphine. Similar experiments had previously found that rats isolated in cages without company or stimulation would choose the drugged water, develop a compulsive habit, and typically end up overdosing.
Conversely, when Alexander built a “Rat Park” with ample food, company, and entertainment, the rats mostly ignored the drugged water. His conclusion was that the rats choosing the drugs were doing so because of unmet psychological needs. Since then, studies of human behavior have found the same.
Hari describes it this way in his talk:
Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other. But if you can’t do that because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.
Drug courts outnumber gambling courts 3800 to 1
That unhealthy bond, or addiction, can be with almost anything. Drugs and alcohol are common, but so are any number of harmful behaviors, including compulsive gambling.
When it comes to crimes driven by addiction, the most effective way to reduce recidivism is usually to treat the addiction. By the logic of Hari, Alexander, Maté and others in their camp, the way to do that is to rebuild connections. Conversely, incarceration simply pulls addicts even further away from their families, friends and a productive role in society.
Gambling treatment diversion courts fall under the larger umbrella of “specialty courts” designed to address such issues. Specialty drug courts have become quite commonplace, now existing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. There are over 3800 of them nationwide. And yet, the Nevada GTDC is the only specialty court for problem gamblers currently operating in the country.
In its two-and-a-half year life, it has had a total of just 10 participants. That’s just the tiniest of drops in the bucket, when most estimates of gambling addiction in the US put the number of people struggling with it in the millions or more.
That said, both the New York and Nevada efforts have been successful as proofs of concept. Not only have they been effective in achieving their objectives, many participants have described the experience as a positive one.
During the SBC discussion, Feldman acknowledged that these successes have been important, yet limited in scope:
No one should make the mistake of believing that this is the silver bullet, this is the way we’re going to solve this. But it’s one of the tools that ought to be in our tool belt.
How does a gambling treatment diversion court work?
Although progressive in concept, US gambling treatment courts have been, in some ways, quite conservative in implementation.
For one thing, the eligibility requirements are quite stringent:
- The candidate must plead guilty in court,
- The crime must have been nonviolent in nature, and the candidate must not have a history of violent crime,
- A certified mental health practitioner must examine the candidate and determine that they suffer from a gambling-related disorder and that this was a major factor in the decision to commit the crime, and
- Any failure to comply with the requirements of the program can result in the participant being terminated from the program, and returning to court to receive a traditional sentence
It’s also fiscally conservative, in that the participants must pay out of pocket for the treatment they receive, if able to do so. They must also make restitution payments to their victims. In many cases, the amounts involved are too large for complete restitution to be possible, but this is still better than what victims receive when the perpetrator is sent to prison, which is typically zero.
Participation generally takes a year or more, sometimes longer than the original sentence would have been. Participants must carry their phones with them at all times, with tracking software installed to ensure they avoid all gambling. They must also submit to random drug tests.
In the meantime, they will go through therapy to help with their addiction, and report periodically to the court to make sure they’re on the right track. This latter requirement can actually be one of the things participants find positive about the experience. The connection they build with other participants over the course of this shared experience can be instrumental in their recovery, in much the same fashion as a more traditional addiction support group.
The need for industry support
Aside from the importance of the project, much of the SBC discussion revolved around why the effort faces such headwinds. According to Richard Schuetz, the biggest problem has been the industry turning a blind eye to the issue.
In Nevada, the relevant legislation passed in 2009, but it took almost a decade to get the court off the ground. Schuetz said there’s a certain degree of apathy in Nevada because the gambling industry there relies so heavily on out-of-state visitors. Whatever gambling problems they may develop don’t necessarily affect the state directly.
The identification of problem gambling as a social ill has been slow to be adopted by the industry. It was treated generally by being ignored, for a long time. Nevada, too, and Las Vegas in particular were in the situation of being a tourist market. Which means it’s kind of like a polluting factory. The negative externalities of that production process were dumped into a stream [that flows out of Nevada].
Fortunately, Schuetz and the other panelists don’t think the process will take quite so long in New Jersey. Still, his message to industry figures listening to the panel was that their help would go a long way to speeding things up, specifically in the form of lobbying dollars.
I just don’t think there are a lot of advocates for it. Oftentimes, things happen – especially in legislative processes, by and large today – when they’re paid for. And no one is paying lobbyists to go and advocate for these courts, and I think that’s a little bit of a problem. I think they get overlooked. […] All we need is a few CEOs to call up their lobbyists and say ‘you know what, we need a gambling court, get it done.’
Next steps in New Jersey and beyond
Although the ball’s already rolling in New Jersey, it’s still very early going.
Bill A5604 was originally introduced in the legislature on May 12, then replaced with a new version on June 18. The Senate bill S3976 appeared at the same time as the new version.
Both are now in front of their respective Judiciary Committees. Those committee hearings will thus be the next step for each copy of the bill. From there they will pass to the floor for reading, potentially some revisions, and eventually a vote.
At some point, one copy of the bill will become the main version. Judge Moss told OPR that she expects it to be the Senate bill. At the moment, they are effectively identical, but if each ends up with different revisions, there will be some negotiations needed to produce a compromise bill.
New Jersey has two-year legislative sessions, but the current one began in 2020. Thus, the bill will need to pass before the end of the year. If not, its sponsors will have to try again in the following session. That would mean starting the process anew.
Assuming it does succeed, Judge Moss expects that it will be the start of a bigger trend. During the SBC panel, she said:
Once this kicks off, New Jersey is going to set the precedent for the creation of gambling courts. I’ve got my eye on Pennsylvania next, and any other states I can talk to. Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington State, Maryland, Louisiana, they’re all interested.
Given the pace at which gambling is expanding in the US, the stakes have never been higher. If Judge Moss is correct in her prediction, it’s a trend that could save money, families, and even human lives.