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Research on custody suite screening for gambling harms and what types of crime are related to gambling.

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The police and gambling related harms

The latest report from the Howard League’s Commission on Crime and gambling related harms published earlier this week (8 June, 2022) looks at Police awareness and practice regarding gambling related harms. The report found that four in 10 police forces in England and Wales are missing opportunities to detect, and therefore deal with, crime linked to gambling because they do not ask about it when interviewing people in custody.

Although gambling harms and addiction have been found to be connected to offences including violence, theft, arson and criminal damage, only about two in 10 forces screen for them routinely in custody suites. Of the other forces, only half appear to be aware of the issue.

The findings have emerged from research conducted by Dr Helen Churcher of the Howard League for Penal Reform. 

The research

The research examines two key areas via Freedom of Information Requests sent to every police force in England & Wales. The information from the FOIs was supplemented by interviews with four police forces as well as national Liaison & Diversion programme (L&D) leads. The report contains useful case studies. The two topics investigated were:

  1. Existing screening and treatment practices for gambling related harms and addiction.
  2.  Gambling related crimes for a two year (2019-20) period. 


The study found that:

  • Nine of the 44 forces in England and Wales said they screened systematically for gambling harms and addiction in custody suites. The people screened, and the triggers for screening varied as did the screening tools used, including the 4-question The GambleAware General Screening Tool (GAST-G) and the 9-question Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI).
  • Eighteen forces reported that they did not conduct any kind of screening for gambling harms and did not display any kind of awareness.
  • Seventeen forces did not screen systematically but had some awareness of gambling harms. They reported that gambling related harms might be identified through a general assessment of needs and vulnerabilities undertaken either during a custody risk assessment or by L&D. Some of these forces also provided leaflet information either on booking in or release regarding support for gambling harms.

The report highlights the challenges of screening for gambling harms in the custody suite environment:

  • Gambling is an additional issue that requires effective and sensitive treatment alongside the already wide-ranging demands expected to be fulfilled in the police custody suite.
  • Current practice places the onus on an individual to disclose an addiction which is often hidden and poorly understood and may not be the most successful way of eliciting a response. Additionally, there are concerns about whether people are ready to disclose or discuss gambling addiction at this time. People may also lack an awareness of the presence and nature of gambling addiction and gambling related harm themselves.
  • Focussing on financial difficulties as a trigger for screening is unlikely to capture all  – or even most – individuals who are experiencing gambling related crime. This suggests that police and L&D staff need to be empowered with the right skills and knowledge in order to use their judgement with regard to the identification and referral options of gambling harms.

The research concludes that there is value in screening and in asking direct questions about gambling to people in police custody but that many people will not choose to disclose in this setting.

Gambling-related crimes

Interestingly, although existing research confirms the relationship between gambling harms and addiction and acquisitive crime and our (my) natural assumption might be that most gambling related crime is likely to be to get money to pay off losses and/or to continue gambling, the research paints a much more varied picture.

As you can see from the chart below, 45% recorded crimes where gambling was mentioned were actually in the violence against the person category, almost double the proportion (24%) in the theft category.


In a sense, this diversity of criminal activity associated with gambling makes the screening process more difficult. Clearly, there are no physical clues as to who may have a gambling problem (unlike people who crimes are linked to dependencies on alcohol and/or drugs where intoxication may be obvious on arrest) and the lack of particular offences related to gambling make it harder to target screening and other helping interventions.

The report recommends training for both L&D and police custody staff and the inclusion of gambling in the national L&D service specification as well as the expansion of gambling support and treatment across all areas of the country.

I am currently doing work for GamCare on improving the identification and support available for people who gamble and in contact with the criminal justice system. If you run an initiative with the CJS, please: Get in touch


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