People whose lives have been blighted by crime linked to gambling have spoken about the impact it had and what needs to change so that others are protected, as part of research published today (24 March 2022) by the Howard League’s Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms.
The report, “Surviving, not living”: Lived experiences of crime and gambling, outlines the experiences of 22 people in England and Wales who have either been through the criminal justice system themselves or been affected by it as a family member.
The research, led by Dr Lauren Smith of the University of Lincoln, involved semi-structured interviews with 18 participants, 17 male and one female, who had been directly impacted by crime and gambling harm. The other four participants, all women, were family members of people directly impacted.
The interviews invited participants to share their experiences from when they first engaged in gambling and then consider how their gambling escalated and resulted in the commission of crime, what happened to them at each step of their journey through the criminal justice system, the impact this had on themselves and others, what interventions or treatments they received, and what needed to happen in future to aid prevention and better support people.
Most participants said that they had amassed large amounts of debt through gambling before committing an offence. Some reported that they had stolen from friends or family to fund their gambling addiction. The majority, however, had stolen from their employers, often in increasing amounts over time when they did not get caught.
The findings make for interesting reading and are categorised under a series of different headings. The findings are described in detail and I recommend interested readers to access the report in full. However, in this blog post, I focus particularly on the interviewees’ experiences of the criminal justice system.
Pathways into gambling and crime
People got into gambling in different ways, typically starting as teenagers. The easy availability of online and real world gambling accelerated the development of problem gambling.
The role of mental health issues in relation to the development of gambling addiction was complex. There was evidence that for some, gambling provided an escape from other life stressors. Boredom and isolation also factored in the development of gambling addiction.
Access to finances in the workplace, alongside high levels of debt, accrued over several years had been significant precipitating factors in the commission of offences for most participants.
Experiences of criminal justice
The report chronicles peoples’ experiences at every point of the criminal justice system, starting with experiences of the police and being arrested for gambling-related crimes. Most interviewees had experience with all the settings and professional groups involved in the CJS.
- The police, while not unsympathetic to people, had little knowledge or awareness of gambling and crime-related harms. There was no systematic screening or support offered via police custody suites.
- Among defence solicitors and barristers, while there were isolated instances of increased understanding, there was widespread reporting of a lack of knowledge and understanding in relation to representing clients who had experienced gambling harms. This was viewed as a missed opportunity for signposting and support and for some, impacted on the mitigations identified and portrayed in court.
- Many people who had committed crime as a result of gambling had spent lengthy periods of time either on bail or released under investigation. For some, they had been able to use this time to work on their recovery and access the support they needed.
- The pre-sentence report (PSR) process provides a further opportunity for people to be offered support in relation to gambling harms. However, this requires understanding amongst probation staff about gambling addiction and the time and resources to facilitate understanding and supportive discussions, and to inform subsequent report writing. It was found that this was not always the case. The PSR process also provides an opportunity to increase sentencers’ understanding of gambling. Interestingly, it was reported that the recommendations made by PSRs were frequently disregarded by the courts in relation to cases involving gambling-related crimes.
- Many interviewees reported sentencers’ lack of understanding and awareness. This meant that, for the most part, gambling harms were not viewed as a mitigating factor. However, where they were viewed as mitigating, and with evidence to support understanding of gambling harms, this was indicated to impact positively on sentencing outcomes.
- Most prisons are not currently providing support and recovery for people who have experienced gambling harms. A lack of screening and assessment, compounded by a lack of awareness among staff, has resulted in a vacuum for gambling-specific interventions and support. The problems relating to gambling and prisons are further exacerbated by widespread gambling within prisons, which is also facilitated by prison staff.
- People who had experienced probation supervision said that there had been no support, which they attributed to a lack of awareness amongst staff.
- Many people who commit crime as a result of gambling addiction or harms are subject to Proceeds of Crime Act (2002; POCA) proceedings, where they are expected to pay back their “profits” from criminal activity. POCA was an additional significant stressor on people in prison and particularly for families who lived with them. Even after the sentence was completed, POCA still remained a stressor for people and hindered future progress, recovery and rehabilitation.
Conclusion and recommendations
The report calls for systematic screening and assessment for gambling harms at every stage of the criminal justice system with easy access to support and treatment.
Thanks to Jan Vasek for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.