This week is Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, a chance to reflect on how gambling has embedded itself into our culture, and whether the extent to which some participate in it is causing more harm than we currently realise.
Criminal behaviour is one of those potential harms. For a time, it was even a criteria in clinical tools used to diagnose gambling addiction. Whether a symptom of disorder or a consequence, however, the relationship between problem gambling and offending is not well understood.
Certainly, we see the occasional media story about corporate players who, to fund their high stakes habit, help themselves to funds which did not, strictly speaking, belong to them. We may also hear about more ordinary individuals who – perhaps working as a bookkeeper or in a bank – embezzled from their employer to fund a pokies habit and then were sentenced to jail. When we do hear these stories, most likely we think, ‘serves them right’, assuming it is just a consequence of greed.
What we don’t hear about is what might have driven them to obsessive gambling in the first place, or kept them there when it was no longer much fun – about the way in which mental illness or family violence, for example, can drive people to seek solace in bright, warm environments like gaming venues.
Similarly, we don’t hear about how gambling interacts with other factors which drive people into criminal behaviour, or how it might prevent them from getting out again. For, though it may be the primary cause of crime in only a small number of cases, research indicates that gambling can be a significant cause of re-offending. After all, even if an offender has been rehabilitated through their contact with the justice system – receiving effective treatment for mental illness, substance abuse or gambling addiction itself – gambling debt may await them upon release. Often the quickest way to repay that debt, especially for those accustomed to offending, is to commit another crime.
These are just some of the stories emerging from the Centre for Innovative Justice’s research into the intersection of problem gambling and the criminal justice system. Others concern vulnerable people, particularly women, coerced into offending – much of it drug related – as a way of repaying loan sharks from their particular community, or because their partner has spent their Centrelink benefits to fund a pokies habit and left them with no option but to steal to feed their kids In fact, a disproportionate number of inmates of Victoria’s women’s prison are there for offences that can be traced back to gambling debt, whether theirs or their partner’s – women whose children may then be removed and become vulnerable to crime themselves.
This seems a puzzling situation. Nobody benefits, including the community, if vulnerable people with no prior history of offending end up in prison. After all, we know that there is no better training ground for crime. On a cost-benefit analysis alone, therefore, the income we may be deriving from the gaming industry must be weighed up against the other costs.
The legal system needs to understand this issue better if it is going to respond effectively – including by engaging with growing evidence about changes to the neural pathways that can occur as a result of habitual and compulsive behaviour, and the cycle of anticipation and reward in which people can find themselves trapped. Knowledge about neural pathways should then converge with knowledge about offending pathways – the trajectories which can lead problem gamblers into crime, or in which gambling can entrench, or be entrenched by, other forms of anti-social behaviour.
Every case should be viewed independently, of course, and we should certainly guard against gambling becoming an excuse for crime. Courts rightly look for a nexus between an addiction and offending – but they are not currently supported with adequate information about more recognised forms of addiction. Knowledge is further curtailed by the failure of the system to gather any data about gambling, meaning that other factors which may be at play in offending are not addressed in a holistic way.
Our project is about bringing understanding across disciplines together – not to let anyone off the hook, but to seize the chance that contact with the legal system represents to set people on a different path. This therapeutic intervention can come from lawyers, from services, from the judiciary and ideally from all of the above – but it must be supported with shared knowledge across the board.
Whether it is the primary cause of offending by otherwise well-functioning individuals, or just present in the cocktail of chaos in which so many are caught, contact with the criminal justice system is an opportunity to address problem gambling. We must not let this opportunity go to waste.
Rob Hulls, Director, Centre for Innovative Justice