Howard League Commission on Crime & Problem Gambling publishes literature review

The Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling, set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform and chaired by Lord Goldsmith QC, is seeking to establish:

  • what the links between problem gambling and crime are
  • what impact they have on communities and wider society, and
  • what steps could be taken to reduce crime and make people safer.

It has today (1 June 2020) published a literature review entitled “Crime and Problem Gambling: A Research Landscape”, covering jurisdictions including Australasia, the US, Canada, Germany, Scandinavia and the UK. This review (that you can download below) has found that:

  • while the overall quantity of research is not huge, there is a consistency in findings across all jurisdictions, and
  • 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.

In response to these findings, the Commission intends to conduct its own research, in three strands:

  1. the first project will look at the prevalence of gambling-related crime
  2. the second will consider the lived experience of people caught up in the system and
  3. the third will explore sentencers’ awareness of the issue.

Commenting on this, Lord Goldsmith QC has said:

Concern about harmful gambling activity has been growing for some time, but this is the first commission to focus specifically on the relationship between problem gambling and crime.

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 only a handful of academic studies have looked at this across the globe.

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. This has to change and our Commission can play a key role in improving the response to disordered gambling and crime.

The Howard League’s website states as follows:

Researchers have found high prevalence rates of people committing crimes to fund their gambling. A wide variety of crimes are committed as a result of gambling addiction; 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.

Studies have indicated that the more complex, prolonged and persistent a gambling problem is, the more likely it is that a crime will be committed and, indeed, that many crimes may result.

Although there has been a growing understanding that gambling addiction is a behavioural disorder, little of this has been translated to sentencing; problem gambling is not considered to be a mitigating factor in sentencing in the way mental health problems or drug and alcohol addiction are.

Research suggests that, in spite of extremely high rates of gambling addiction among prisoners, prisons offer only limited treatment. There is evidence of resistance to undertaking treatment among prisoners.

Several of the studies reviewed agreed that a custodial sentence, especially when no treatment is available for gambling addiction, was not a cost-effective way of avoiding further harm to the individual or society once the sentence is completed.

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. There is limited data on the success or otherwise of these initiatives.

Research is needed into the potential effect of gambling addiction treatment on the rate of recidivism, as well as more general research on how best to help vulnerable populations avoid the criminal justice system.