Should Michigan Add A Specialized Gambling Diversion Court?

Posted By Matt Schoch on June 22, 2021

Whether Michigan’s decision-makers know it or not, the state is in for a rise in problem gambling behavior.

It’s a cold, hard fact about adding gambling options, a sad reality among the calculus by lawmakers when Michigan recently added sports betting and internet gaming.

Michigan already had some problem gambling guardrails in place, and it added more when gambling laws expanded in December 2019.

But as government officials consider clean-up legislation and stakeholders consider next steps, one idea from Las Vegas deserves at least at least a fair hearing.

What is a gambling diversion court?

Diversion courts exist as an extension of the traditional court system, lightening caseloads and also helping rehabilitate the accused.

There are thousands of diversion courts in the United States dealing with matters such as juvenile offenses, or non-violent crimes such as drug offenses. However, only one deals with gambling. That’s in Clark County, Nevada, home of Las Vegas.

There, the Nevada Gambling Treatment Diversion Court was instituted in 2018 to help rehabilitate criminals dealing with gambling addiction.

If a crime such as embezzlement or fraud is committed because of a gambling addiction, a defendant could choose to enter the diversion court in lieu of jail time.

If approved by a criminal judge, the defendant signs a gambler’s contract, undergoes therapy and agrees to become fully transparent with his or her finances.

The program is designed to last 18 to 36 months. After successful completion, the individual can have the incident removed from their record.

Gambling diversion court possibly coming to New Jersey

If Michigan considers a gambling diversion court, the state will be falling in line with others.

The furthest state along toward opening a second such court in the country is New Jersey, which also leads the nation in online gambling.

This month, New Jersey Assemblyman Ralph R. Caputo introduced a bill for a diversion court based off Clark County’s model.

As part of a recent panel discussion for the SBC Digital North America conference, Judge Cheryl Moss shared details about the Clark County program she helped found.

“Explosion of gaming is going to predictably raise the numbers of problem gamblers out there, and these courts will become essential to rehabilitating citizens,” she said. “Each state has a duty to protect its citizens and make sure they don’t commit crimes again.”

Some of the reason is purely economics, she explained, and there’s always some restitution involved for the individual to pay up for their crimes.

Plus, in Nevada, jailing a healthy adult costs the state about $24,000 a year. New Jersey’s costs soar above $60,000 a year per inmate, Moss said.

“The states are going to need to save money, and incarceration does no good,” Moss said. “We’re saving taxpayer money, and there’s also a human aspect to it.

“It saves lives.

Why not have a gambling diversion court?

Some opponents of the idea say criminals would lie about having a gambling addiction to get out of more severe penalties for crimes.

However, Moss points out the Nevada program was selective. When she retired from the court earlier this year, only nine people had entered the program.

“We don’t accept people who think of this as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” she said.

As a practical matter, gambling consultant Richard Schuetz said there are not enough people fighting for the addition of courts.

“I just don’t think there were a lot of advocates for it,” he said. “No one is paying for lobbyists to go advocate for these courts.”

Schuetz argued that operators need to step up and push solutions.

“Self-regulation, at some point, needs to come in,” he said. “That’s why I’m beating the drum to the industry: Wake up!

“Firms spend huge amounts on lobbying expenditures. Those CEOs need to call up those lobbyists and say, ‘We need diversion courts, let’s get this done.’”

Courts could be part of a multi-pronged solution

Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow of responsible gaming for the UNLV International Gaming Institute, said adding such courts is an obvious solution when compared with jailing gambling addicts.

“I have yet to see a study that doesn’t say that incarceration exacerbates problem gambling,” he said. “It’s one of those rare moments where every single study … shows problem gambling gets worse.

“You’re there in prison with nothing to do, so that’s what you do. It would seem, logically, that the treatment program is just an obvious choice.”

Advocates argue that gambling diversion courts could be another straightforward way to fight against problem gambling.

The courts would not be the only solution. But they could be part of an arsenal of tools available to the public.

“No one should make the mistake to believe that this is the silver bullet, that this is the way we’re going to solve this,” Feldman said. “But it’s one of the tools that ought be in the tool belt, along with many other things.”

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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