NJ gambling addicts charged with crimes could get help, not jail
TRENTON – New Jersey’s criminal justice system has a fairly well-known drug court, now referred to as a recovery court, and a newer, less frequently used diversionary program for veterans.
To that mix might soon be added a gambling treatment diversion court, as the state expands the availability of gambling with things like sports betting and online gaming but now considers a need to intervene with the resulting rise in people with a gambling addiction.
Gambling can have the same effects on the brain as drugs, said Lia Nower, a Rutgers University professor and director of its Center for Gambling Studies.
In testimony before the state Legislature, Nower recalled her time as a public defender meeting a compulsive gambler who went to prison after embezzling $300,000. She said there are a growing number of such crimes currently in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“Murder, welfare fraud, drug dealing, embezzlement,” Nower said. “And in all these instances, the offenses resulted from the increasingly narrow spiral of options available to individuals desperate for money to gamble.”
Nower said about 5% of people wagering online place 75% of the bets. She said 18% of high-risk gamblers reported committing gambling-related crimes. Sixteen percent have thought about suicide and 13% attempted it because of gambling.
Nevada established the nation’s first gambling diversion court. Its first presiding judge, from 2018 through her retirement in 2020, was Judge Cheryl Moss, who grew up in Hackensack, Ridgewood and Edison and is assisting with the development of the proposal in New Jersey.
Moss said the program includes treatment, drug testing and financial and location monitoring.
“What happens is they’re going to be restored to get jobs, pay back their restitution – that’s part of the bill there – to stay with their families and stay out of trouble, basically,” Moss said.
Moss projected that New Jersey will divert 30 to 50 defendants at any given time into the program, which generally takes three years to complete though can be done more quickly.
Felicia Grondin, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said gambling addiction is a problem that’s growing as gaming expands.
“This is an issue that is of equal importance as drug and alcohol, but it’s a silent, hidden addiction that people are not recognizing,” Grondin said. “And it isn’t recognized until it’s too late – until someone commits suicide, until they spend their children’s college fund.”
Grondin wants the bill, A420, changed to give the council an official role in the recovery court program, should it go forward.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill but didn’t take a vote. Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, the panel’s chairman, said he hopes to hold a vote in the coming months.
“We should be working to destigmatize it and ensure that we have supportive services in place for folks suffering from gambling disorder, just like any other type of illness,” said Mukherji, who said gambling addiction has been a recognized psychiatric disorder for nearly a decade.