The relationship between legal gambling and crime in Alberta.

AuthorArthur, Jennifer N.


There is a general perception that increased gambling availability leads to increased crime (Smith and Wynne 1999). This perception partly derives from the well-publicized role that organized crime had in the provision of legal gambling in Nevada when it was first introduced. However, perhaps less well known is the fact that the United States government subsequently introduced regulations that effectively eliminated organized crime from commercial gambling in Nevada (and the rest of the United States) (Ferentzy and Turner 2009). It is also important to recognize that the gambling industry has different origins in other countries. For example, whereas gambling was primarily introduced by private operators in the United States, it was introduced by government in Canada as well as in many European countries. This early government involvement has potentially left little room for large-scale organized crime gambling involvement. This is especially true in light of the fact that many of these countries also adopted many of the rigorous regulatory practices instituted in the United States.

Another source for the belief that legal gambling leads to increased crime is the frequent police and media contentions that an association exists between the two. In Canada, one Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Assistant Commissioner stated unequivocally that government gambling would inevitably increase rates of money laundering, loan sharking, extortion, and fraud (Proke 1994). In a review of gambling-related print media articles published in western Canada, Smith and Wynne (1999) concluded that the media view topics related to gambling and crime as "sexy" topics that sell newspapers. Furthermore, many of these articles are based on opinions and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence, thereby creating an over-representation of gambling-related crime articles, leading readers to believe gambling-related crime (2) is more common than it may actually be.

The empirical evidence on the relationship between gambling and crime is mixed. In a recent comprehensive review of the 49 studies that have examined the impact of this issue (Williams, Rehm, and Stevens 2011), most studies found an increase in crime rates, but a significant minority found no impact. When increases were found, the magnitude of these increases was modest, and spurious variables may have accounted for many of these increases (Williams, Rehm, and Stevens 2011; Miller and Schwartz 1998).

To better understand this mixed pattern of results, it is useful to explore in detail the mechanisms by which legal gambling could affect crime rates. There are three primary ways in which this could occur. The first is by decreasing the prevalence rate of illegal gambling. The second is by increasing the prevalence of problem gambling, (3) recognizing that a percentage of problem gamblers commit crime to support their gambling (criminogenic problem gambling). The third is that the creation of gambling venues may provide additional opportunities for crime to occur. Each of these potential impacts is reviewed below.

Impacts of legal gambling on illegal gambling

One of the common rationales for government legalization of gambling is to reduce illegal gambling and to divert illegal gambling revenues into government coffers. Theoretically, when legal opportunities to gamble are created, illegal gambling should decrease because gamblers will have no motivation to patronize illegal forms.

However, this relationship may not be as straightforward as it seems. There are several things that an individual might consider in deciding whether to patronize legal versus illegal gambling venues. On one hand, the most obvious attraction of legal gambling is its legality as well as the fact that the gambler can have some assurance that the games are fair and that the posted odds are accurate. On the other hand, illegal gambling still can manage to continue if it can offer features that legal gambling does not. These could be higher stakes gambling than is legally allowed; credit-based gambling, which is prohibited in most jurisdictions; longer hours of operation; and forms of gambling that may not be legally available (e.g., single event sports betting, electronic gambling machines operating outside of a dedicated gambling venue, dog race betting, etc.). Illegal gambling venues may offer additional services (e.g., prostitution, drugs) which are not readily available at the legal venues.

There is very little academic research on the current extent and nature of illegal gambling in Canada. An exception to this is that Moodie (2002) documented that there were 2,069 people charged with illegal gambling in Ontario between 1997 and 2002. During this time 2,034 illegal slot machines were seized along with $1.23 million in cash and $6.01 million in property. In 2000, during a special investigation into book making, Ontario investigators uncovered that $4.6 million was spent in illegal sports betting over a 90-day period (Moodie 2002). On the basis of evidence such as this, Moodie projected that there was at least $380 million dollars in illegal gambling revenues in Ontario annually, with 92% of this going to support organized crime (Moodie 2002).

Within Alberta, there is a general sentiment that illegal gambling exists and that organized crime is involved to some extent (Smith and Wynne 1999). However, Smith and Wynne (1999) also point out that, while organized crime is almost certainly a supplier of illegal gambling, there is no evidence or belief that that they control the illegal gambling market. Rather, their activities are believed to be concentrated on more lucrative endeavours, such as drug dealing and prostitution.

Impacts of legal gambling on criminogenic problem gambling

Increased legal gambling availability could affect the amount of crime in a community by potentially increasing the number of criminogenic problem gamblers (Rosenthal and Lesieur 1996). Criminogenic problem gambling is defined as problem gambling that results in the gambler committing a criminal offence to support gambling habits.

Crime occurs in a percentage of problem gamblers

Problem gambling is associated with a range of negative consequences for the individual, his/her family, and society in general. One of these consequences is an increased rate of criminal offending among some problem gamblers. Rosenthal and Lesieur (1996) assert that criminogenic problem gambling typically occurs in the late stages of gambling addiction. After exhausting legal avenues of obtaining money to gamble with (e.g., wages and savings), the gambler becomes anxious and depressed, thereby compromising his/her judgment. In this phase of gambling addiction, individuals are preoccupied with obtaining money to gamble, and some of these individuals will resort to criminal offending to obtain funds to continue gambling.

It is certainly true that problem gamblers in treatment report frequent involvement in criminal activities. Several studies across European and North American countries have estimated that 21% to 85% of problem gamblers from Gamblers Anonymous (GA), counselling services, and in-patient treatment facilities have reported committing a criminal offence to maintain their gambling addiction (Blaszczynski and Silove 1996). In a subsequent study of problem gamblers, Blaszczynski, Steel, and McConaghy (1997), found that 58% of the sample committed a gambling-related offence and 21 % committed a non-gambling related offence. Similarly, Meyer and Fabian (1992) found that 55% of a sample of GA members reported that they committed crime to obtain money to gamble.

Most crimes committed by problem gamblers appear to be non-violent income-generating property crimes, such as embezzlement, cheque and credit card fraud, forgery, larceny, and tax evasion (Blaszczynski and Silove 1996). A small sub-set commits more serious offences that result in custodial sentences (as reviewed by Blaszczynski and Silove 1996). In a review of police records, Smith, Wynne, and Hartnagel (2003) corroborated that the most common offences that could be attributed to criminogenic problem gambling were theft, fraud, and family disputes. (4) The authors also caution that problems inherent with self-report data make estimating the magnitude of criminogenic problem gambling difficult.

The existing evidence indicates that a significant portion of problem gamblers commit crime to support gambling addiction. However, there are some causality issues with asserting that the crime committed by problem gamblers is caused by a gambling addiction. Many gamblers who commit offences have prior convictions (Meyer and Stadler 1999); and forensic populations have a significantly higher rate of problem gambling than the general population. In a review of the relationship between problem gambling and forensic populations it was found that approximately 30% of offenders met the criteria for problem gambling (Williams, Royston, and Hagen 2005). This is much higher than found in the general population, where past year prevalence of problem gambling ranges from 0.5% to 7.6% depending on the country (Williams, Volberg, and Stevens 2012).

Even though the literature demonstrates that forensic populations have higher rates of problem gambling and problem gamblers have higher rates of criminal offending, the nature and extent of this relationship remains unclear. One possibility is that the late phases of gambling addiction result in criminogenic problem gambling. Another possibility is that both criminal offending and problem gambling have common determinants. Cunningham-Williams, Grucza, Cottier, Womack, Books, Przybeck, Spitznagel, and Cloninger (2005) found a strong relationship between antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and problem gambling, with a 6.1 times greater likelihood of an ASPD diagnosis in problem gamblers than in the general population. Furthermore...

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