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How should we, as a society, treat people whose addictions lead them to commit crimes?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, even in strictly practical terms. Factor in an individual’s moral judgment and personal experience with addiction (or lack thereof), and you’ll get all sorts of different suggestions, ranging from naive to draconian.
Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find the Nevada Gambling Treatment Diversion Court (GTDC). It’s an option available to those who’ve pleaded guilty to nonviolent crimes motivated by a gambling addiction, such as theft or fraud. While more understanding of the problem gambler’s predicament than prison, it’s no cakewalk.
The GTDC is the second of its kind in the US, following a pilot project in Amherst, NY. Both follow the same model as drug treatment courts. These have proven successful enough that they’re now available in roughly half of US counties nationwide.
Nevada’s court turned two years old this week, but the idea dates back to 2009. In that year, Gov. Jim Gibbons signed the bill ordering such a court to be established, though it took the better part of a decade to do so. In 2018, Chief Judge Linda Bell appointed Judge Cheryl Moss to preside over the GTDC, which held its first session on Nov. 30 that year.
There are currently nine active participants in the court, two of whom have been working with Judge Moss from the start. She will be retiring at the end of the year, after one final session on Dec. 13. The court will continue operating under new, yet-to-be-named leadership in the new year.
Meanwhile, other states including New Jersey are looking at the possibility of following suit and launching gambling treatment courts of their own.
Although not as unpleasant as prison, enrollment in the GTDC system represents a long-term commitment. In many cases, completing the program will end up taking longer than the person would have been spent behind bars.
The accused must first plead guilty in criminal court and submit a request during sentencing. A certified mental health practitioner will examine the case to confirm the claim that gambling addiction was the prime motivator. If the request is accepted, the applicant must then pay a $1,500 fee and commit to presenting themselves at the GTDC every second Friday for a period of 1 to 3 years.
During this time, they will wear a GPS device. This is to ensure that they don’t visit any casinos or linger too long in a place slot machines can be found. They are also subject to random drug tests, which they must pay for themselves.
Sessions at the court are part accountability check-ins and part group therapy sessions. Those in the program must also work one-on-one for its duration with a mental health practitioner specializing in gambling addiction. The participant must pay for this themselves as well. However, loans and grants are available for those who can’t afford it out of pocket.
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the participant can eventually stay clear of gambling or additional criminal behavior of their own accord. Should they fail to meet the requirements or drop out early, they will serve the original sentence for their crime.
This is the right time to be thinking about such things in the US. The country is in the midst of a wave of gambling expansion, taking a few different forms:
Studies have shown that legalization produces at most a small increase in the rate of gambling over the long term. Moreover, regulation can be useful in reducing the harm done by problem gambling. However, the transition from prohibition to legalization does tend to bring with it a short-term spike in gambling and induce some people to start gambling for the first time.
In particular, newly legal online gambling in Pennsylvania and Michigan means these states need to be sure they have a plan to deal with the consequences of that spike. There’s no other state with such extensive experience with gambling-related problems as Nevada. Its approaches, including the GTDC, can therefore serve as a useful example to follow.
New Jersey may soon provide a new and potentially even more useful example. It’s both closer to home and a state whose situation more closely resembles that of the other states with new forms of gambling. After all, it introduced online gambling late in 2013 and took its first legal sports bets in 2018.
Judge Moss herself will be instrumental in setting this up. New Jersey Assemblyman Daniel Benson has enlisted her aid in creating an advisory group to consult on the subject, while drafting legislation that would create such a court. In the meantime, she is also working on setting up a second Nevada court in Reno.
How we approach criminal justice is always a controversial topic. Programs like the GTDC frequently run into criticism from those who feel that they amount to being “soft on crime” and only encourage criminality.
Things can get even more heated when addiction is a factor, as views on that subject vary just as widely. Those who see addiction as a personal moral failing tend to want to see addiction-related crimes punished. Those who see it as a mental health issue tend to be more in favor of treatment.
However, we can cut through this controversy by looking at social outcomes. The intended function of the justice system in a democracy isn’t retribution for past crimes. It’s to prevent future crimes through a combination of deterrence, rehabilitation, and keeping dangerous individuals out of general society.
The GTDC is far too young to gauge its efficacy at this point. However, drug treatment courts have been quite successful in reducing the chances of repeat offenses. The results vary from program to program, but decreases of 17% to 26% in recidivism have been typical in the US. The direct cost of the programs in tax dollars is also less on average than traditional sentences.
It’s hard to argue with those results. If the GTDC model proves equally effective for crimes motivated by gambling addiction, then it’s something we may see rolled out in these other states in the near future.