Gambling has been a form of popular entertainment in Australia from earliest colonial days right up to the present day, with Australians spending billions of dollars on various forms of gambling each year.
Unfortunately, gambling can get addictive and lead to people losing much more money than they can afford to. Desperate to pay bills, some may be tempted to steal or commit other crimes in order to fuel their expensive habit, or make up for losses.
It is estimated that between one-fifth and one-quarter of problem gamblers commit related criminal offences.
Gambling is most commonly linked with non-violent offences such as fraud, theft (including shoplifting), burglary and embezzlement.
How does the law deal with gambling addictions?
Simply having a gambling addiction that contributes to the commission of a crime does not automatically make the offence less serious.
The 68-year-old lady who lived in social isolation committed several acts of fraud amounting to approximately $74,000.00 over a six-year period in order to support her gripping addiction.
In the District Court, she was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment with a non-parole period of twelve months, meaning that she would have to spend at least a year in prison. She appealed on the basis that the sentence was too harsh arguing, among other things, that the District Court Judge did not sufficiently take her gambling addiction into account.
While the Supreme Court Justices expressed sympathy for Mrs Molesworth on appeal, they held that only exceptional circumstances could justify gambling be counted as a “mitigating factor”, which is a factor that makes an offence less serious and can lead to a more lenient penalty. Two of the three Justices held that Mrs Moleworth’s situation did not fit the bill, and her appeal was dismissed accordingly.
The Justices further stated that penalties for fraud must reflect the seriousness of these offences, and must also meet society’s expectation that such conduct will be strongly condemned. In their view, Mrs Molesworth’s penalty had to be harsh to deter both her and others from committing fraud.
Deterrence and addiction
For those who are severely addicted to drugs or gambling, desperation is likely to be the overriding force that leads them to commit crimes. That desperation can override logical thought processes, meaning that the fear of prosecution may only come into play to a limited extent, if at all. This means that concerns about being caught and punished are unlikely to deter those who are severely addicted from committing offences.
Studies have shown that when problem gamblers engage in fraud or related activities to pay their gambling debts, they have cognitive distortions. They don’t recognise their actions as stealing, but rather as ‘borrowing.’ They believe they will repay their debt just as soon as they win enough money, which they are certain will be soon.
All of this suggests that severe punishments may do little to deter those with heavy gambling addictions from committing fraud offences.
Gambling courts and court-mandated programs
Gambling affects the brain – and research has shown that, like other forms of addiction, pathological gambling has a recognisable effect on brain function.
Neuroscientists have discovered that gambling can alter brain circuits and neurological pathways much the same way as drug or alcohol addictions. This means that repetitive gambling can, in the longer term, be just as addictive and brain-altering as drug-induced highs.
In cases where drug addiction has led to crime, there are a range of programs and resources in place for habitual users to rehabilitate themselves; including the MERIT Program, the Drug Court Program and an array of both residential and outpatient treatment centres.
Reports from court-mandated programs are routinely used in the sentencing process to secure more favourable outcomes for clients.
But despite our gambling culture and the link between gambling and fraud, there is a surprising absence of mechanisms in the criminal justice system to deal with gambling addiction in the same way.
In 2001, a gambling court similar our Drug Court commenced operation in New York. The Amherst Gambling Treatment Court is modelled on United States drug courts and focuses on early intervention and rehabilitation.
Much the same way as drug courts, applicants must first pass a screening process. Participants are then required to undergo intensive therapy and counselling, and if the program is completed successfully, they will normally receive a reduced sentence when they reappear in court.
Poker machines generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the NSW government each year, providing funding for a range of projects. But at the same time, gambling addiction causes financial problems for thousands of Australian families, leading many heavily-addicted individuals to turn to stealing and fraud to support their all-consuming habits, or even just to pay bills after the pokies have swallowed-up their last dollar.
Perhaps it’s time that we think about gambling addiction in the same way that we see other forms of addiction, and that we consider implementing court-mandated programs or even special courts to deal with the problem.