Compulsion, convergence or crime? Criminal justice system contact as a form of gambling harm

Social issues Gambling Problem gambling Mental health promotion Criminal justice Crime

Rarely mentioned as a legal policy consideration, this report suggests that gambling may be a feature of offenders’ lives in more ways than the community might expect — a ‘sleeper’ issue, as project participants described it. Yet the overwhelming presence of mental illness, Acquired Brain Injury, family violence; childhood trauma; drug and alcohol abuse; homelessness and other forms of vulnerability in offender populations mean that the existence of less visible problems like gambling is not always clear.

Given that it is only in the last few decades that gambling has shifted from a predominantly unlawful pursuit to one encouraged as a mainstream leisure activity, it is not surprising that it has failed to register in any meaningful way on the legal system’s radar. Similarly, clinical understanding of the severity with which gambling problems can manifest — reflected in the relatively recent inclusion of gambling within clinical tools which diagnose other forms of addiction — has been slow to reach legal discourse.

In fact, despite previous recommendations that relevant data collection occur, the legal system does not ask any questions about the presence of gambling within offender populations, outside specific and quite limited contexts. What’s more, the small amount of information that we do have from the ‘front end’ of the system, being presentation for legal advice or at court, conflicts with available studies of problem gambling prevalence in prison populations. This means that we simply do not know, overall, the exact extent to which gambling harm intersects with the criminal justice system and, if it does, in what way.

When funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation to explore the intersection of gambling harm and the criminal justice system, therefore, the CIJ’s task was to start to draw together the information which does exist, but also to open a door for it to be collected in the future.

Through comprehensive literature review; analysis of raw data provided by various agencies; an audit of submissions to the Royal Commission on Family Violence; analysis of sentencing remarks in over 100 cases in Victorian superior courts; and through focus group discussions and targeted consultations, the CIJ gained access to views not previously explored in existing Australian research. This was not only to capture the understanding which currently exists, but to create opportunities for this understanding to grow.

In order to create these opportunities, this project started to map the pathways which propel problem gamblers into contact with offending, offenders into gambling, and any context in between. The most obvious example of this occurs along a linear pathway in which a person develops a gambling problem and then commits an offence — such as theft or drug trafficking — to resource it.

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