The links between crime and problem gambling

Lord Goldsmith QC on the Howard League's Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling.

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Crime and problem gambling

This is a guest post by Lord Goldsmith QC, Chair of the Howard League Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling.

It is too early to say whether things will ever get back to ‘normal’ after the coronavirus pandemic but, after many weeks in lockdown, some familiar activities are beginning to return, albeit with different arrangements.

Shops have reopened with strict social distancing measures. Restaurants are offering take-away food. And on our television screens, sports events such as horse racing and Premier League football are back – together with the resumption of debates about gambling adverts that invite us to have a flutter.

Concern about harmful gambling has been growing for some time, and we have all read or heard sad stories of people whose lives have been touched by it. But is there a link to crime? Surprisingly few authorities appear to have asked this question, but the Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling, of which I am Chair, is trying to find out.

Set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Commission brings together academics and professionals with expertise in the criminal justice system and public health as well as experts with knowledge of the gambling industry and lived experience of addiction. We want to establish what the links between crime and problem gambling are, and how they affect communities and wider society. We will recommend steps that could be taken to reduce crime and make people safer.

From people getting into debt and defrauding family members or employers, to domestic violence and other crimes relating to gambling-related stress, we know anecdotally that police stations, courts and prisons see significant numbers of cases. But the criminal justice system itself does very little work to capture the scale of the challenge and even less in terms of offering interventions like those we see for alcohol or drug problems.

Literature review

A literature review published by the Commission earlier this month revealed the size of the task ahead of us. We found that, while millions of people are affected by gambling either directly or indirectly, there appear to be fewer than 50 peer-reviewed papers in the last 25 years that address the links between problem gambling and crime specifically.

Our review covered jurisdictions including Australasia, the US, Canada, Germany, Scandinavia and the UK, and while the overall quantity of research was not huge, there was some consistency in the findings.

Researchers have found high prevalence rates of people committing crimes to fund their gambling and the types of crime are wide-ranging: not just ‘white collar’ crimes such as theft and fraud, but also offences that occur in public spaces such as street robbery. There is significant evidence of domestic abuse and child neglect linked to problem and pathological gambling.

Although there has been a growing understanding that gambling addiction is a behavioural disorder, this does not appear to have influenced sentencing policy. Problem gambling is not considered to be a mitigating factor in sentencing in the way mental health problems or drug and alcohol addiction are.

A small number of specialised gambling courts have been established in the US, with the aim of ensuring that people with gambling addictions who are in trouble with the law receive appropriate treatment. But there is limited data to tell us whether these initiatives have been successful.

Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith

A programme of research

Clearly we do not have all the pieces we need to complete this jigsaw, so the Commission is going to embark on a research programme of its own, focusing initially on three strands.

First, we want to get a better understanding of the scale of the problem, by surveying people who have been arrested. This would build on work already being done in Cheshire, where a gambling screening programme has been running for a number of years. Not only would it tell us more about the number of people with gambling issues who get into trouble; it would give us insight into the types of offences that bring them to the attention of the police.

Our second research project will look at sentencing. If someone with a gambling problem commits a crime and is prosecuted, how is this information presented and dealt with in court? Are sentencers given information about problem gambling and if so, does it make any difference? Are magistrates and judges even aware that this is an issue? These are questions that we need to answer.

Thirdly, we hope to speak to former prisoners and find out more about their experiences. This research project would help us to map how people first engage with gambling, what types of gambling they engage in, how it escalates, when and how it leads to crime, and what effect this has on family and friends. It would also tell us more about how and when people in prison seek or receive help with their gambling problems.

While all this work is going on, we will continue to hold evidence sessions to find out more. Lord Chadlington, a vocal campaigner on safer gambling, has agreed to appear before the Commission in September. Carolyn Harris MP and Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Chair and Vice Chair of the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group, are due to share their thoughts with us in October.

 The three research commissions will be advertised separately. If you would like to receive information about the commissions, please contact Anita Dockley, Research Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, by emailing [email protected]

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