To feed their gambling addiction, players sometimes resort to crimes such as theft or fraud—anything to get enough money to place the next bet. If caught and convicted of a criminal offense, they can end up in prison.
In 2018, Nevada came up with a different approach to compulsive gamblers who commit crimes. Taking a page from a little-known program in Amherst, New York, the state established the Gambling Treatment Diversion Court (GTDC), which gives addicts convicted of crimes an alternative to prison. Under the direction of Judge Cheryl Moss, the court relies on counseling, treatment, restitution, support groups and relapse prevention.
To date, Nevada has treated nine addicts who met the criteria to participate.
“All have been doing quite well,” Moss said. “They’re happy being in the program and genuinely participating as they see that the program is helping them stay abstinent. There’s no gambling treatment in prison, so a person will likely return to crime because of their addiction unless they voluntarily seek help.”
The diversion court saves the costs of incarceration but more importantly, helps to save families. “Some of our participants have young children or grandchildren, and all have relatives and close people that give them support,” Moss said. “On the other hand, prison is a lonely place.”
A person who commits a crime committed in “furtherance of a gambling addiction” may request admission to the program. Upon successful completion, the statute provides for dismissal of charges. Then a mental health professional, typically a certified problem gambling counselor, assesses the participant and submits a detailed report to the court on whether the person suffers from a gambling disorder.
Moss pointed out that gambling disorder is an impulse control disorder, not a moral failing, and is classified as an addiction disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Comorbidity—the presence of more than one addiction—is common, and the court requires that every participant undergo initial weekly drug testing to screen for alcohol or other substances. Sometimes a person with an addictive disorder will replace one addiction for another to get a sense of relief, Moss said.
“I like to give my participants projects, such as exercising, reading a book, creating Power Point presentations for me on their budgets, or telling me about a family reunion or a trip they took. It gives them something to do and not think about turning to other addictions,” she said.
In the case of one client who tested positive for opioids, the Gambling Court coordinator, a licensed therapist, helped him find resources. “I told him he was a good person who made a bad choice,” Moss said. “And when he starts making good choices, he’ll feel better about himself and more in control of his life.”
Participants meet with Moss every other Friday. They sign a Gambler’s Contract saying they agree to go to counseling every week to start, to submit to random drug testing weekly, to have GPS location monitoring on their cell phones, and to submit their financial statements, bank statements, credit card statements, W-2G winnings forms, credit reports, tax returns, paystubs and financial disclosure forms. “Basically, they have to be an open book, so we can ensure they’re not gambling or going into casinos,” Moss said.
Initial counseling is considered intensive outpatient treatment. It can taper off as gamblers improve and stay abstinent. Participants must attend at least two support groups weekly, Gamblers Anonymous or another support group, and the therapist submits written updates on their progress. As they near the end of the program, participants work with their therapist to create a relapse prevention plan. Upon successful completion or graduation, they agree to work with a sponsor or peer-mentor.
Graduates continue to pay restitution to the best of their financial ability. “But think about this,” said Moss. “If they were sitting in prison, the victim is not getting the restitution and the gambler is not getting treatment. In GTDC, we make sure they have employment and pay a reasonable amount of restitution monthly to the victim.”
Though they may not be able to pay off the entire amount in a lifetime, “we kept them out of prison,” Moss observed. “They can hold jobs and repay the victim one month at a time—a reasonable amount they can afford after their monthly expenses are met.”
Moss emphasized that addicts never recover, but are always in recovery. “It’s possible you can have a relapse, but healthy living, self-esteem, and relationships will keep the addiction in check.”
The success of the Nevada program has not escaped notice in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey is currently working with Moss and the state legislature to develop a treatment diversion court in that state.
“The council has been working on trying to establish a diversion court over the years,” said Executive Director Neva Pryor. “We’re now moving forward to try to bring it into fruition. This type of service is very much needed to help the individual with a gambling addiction make restitution for gambling-related crimes while working on their recovery.”
Since the legalization of internet gaming and sports betting, a third of the calls to the 800-GAMBLER helpline relate to these types of activities, Pryor said. “Anecdotally, we’ve had an increase in calls over the pandemic and will be reporting on them shortly.”
Pennsylvania is also seeing an increase in helpline calls indicating the internet and sports gambling are problematic, said Josh Ercole, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.
“It’s important to take into consideration the impact Covid-19 has had,” Ercole said. “While we anticipated seeing increased numbers, the increase in online gambling as a result of casinos closing in the spring was certainly dramatic.”
After observing the Nevada court in action, New Jersey Assemblyman Daniel Benson and other policymakers have initiated steps towards legislation establishing a diversion court.
“As we approach adapting this to New Jersey, we look at successful drug courts that we could adapt through a pilot program,” Benson said. “Looking at a parallel process makes a lot of sense, especially with the rise in online gambling and sports gambling. The environment is right to examine doing this.
“There’s a large amount of support for our goal,” he continued. “The expectation is that by January or February, we would feel good enough about where the bill stands to introduce it.”
New Jersey’s draft legislation says, in part: “There is hereby established a Gambling Court Pilot Program which shall have as a purpose the treatment of persons determined to be affected by an addictive disorder related to gambling and who committed a crime for which they have been convicted in furtherance or as a result of the gambling.”
Ercole has had conversations with a number of judges and attorneys within the court system. “We believe that a legislative move may be needed to implement this type of program and build support for it.”
Gambling disorder is often referred to as a hidden addiction due to the limited physical impact and the ability for folks to function “normally” while experiencing issues, Ercole said. “There’s a tremendous stigma often associated with gambling disorder, as well as frequent co-morbidity, and this can often become a barrier to treatment.”
Experts say the diversion court is a viable alternative. “Incarceration in lieu of addiction treatment, whether that is for substances, alcohol or gambling, does not address the disease that the person is suffering from,” said Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer for St. Petersburg, Florida-based American Addiction Centers. “With treatment and counseling that adequately addresses their particular issues and teaches appropriate coping skills, there is a significantly greater chance that their behavior and decision making will change for the better.”
Weinstein said addiction alters neural pathways in the brain. It negatively affects the brainstem, cerebral cortex and brain circuitry and causes other neurological and physical effects. “A jail sentence cannot treat that. When people are afforded the opportunity to get help and begin a life in recovery, they have a better chance of leading a productive life than if they were incarcerated with their disease untreated.”