Crime and compulsive gambling

Criminology Research Council grant ; (1/87)

This study represents the first Australian attempt to obtain empirical data describing the nature and prevalence of gambling-related criminal behaviours amongst diagnosed pathological gamblers.

Since the 1973 Tasmanian Interdepartmental Committee Report, government inquiries and reviews on the gambling industry have consistently emphasised the paucity of available information outlining the social and welfare impact of gambling on the general community. While it is readily acknowledged that significant economic, revenue and political advantages are gained by the community in general and State governments in particular, it is equally recognised by welfare organisations that severe negative effects are suffered by a minority of adults diagnosed as pathological gamblers. The prevalence rate for pathological gamblers is 0.5 to 1 per cent, a figure comparable to that for the proportion of hard drug users in the community.

Welfare organisations have highlighted social and familial costs associated with excessive gambling but have generally neglected the possible relationship of pathological gambling and the commission of offences to support such gambling habits. Psychiatric and psychological clinical studies have consistently described high rates of illegal behaviours in samples of pathological gamblers seeking treatment. These studies have also noted that a significant proportion of these do not exhibit any evidence of antisocial personality but present before the courts charged with offences motived directly by a need to maintain their habitual gambling and not personal economic gain.

The proposition that a strong causal link exists between gambling and offending has been offered in some American courts of law as an argument for diminished responsibility in defence of gamblers prosecuted for alleged offences, or alternatively and increasingly more common in the Australian context, as a significant mitigating factor which magistrates should rightly take into consideration in sentencing offenders.

The results of this study revealed that a significant proportion (59 per cent) of pathological gamblers participate in some form of illegal activity for the specific purpose of obtaining gambling funds. Approximately 23 per cent of pathological gamblers had committed serious non-violence property offences that resulted in arrest or conviction. Of those charged, 42 per cent received custodial sentences and served an average of one to two years in prison. Importantly, only 15 per cent of the total sample of gamblers studied were classified as having antisocial personality disorders. These findings suggested that offences occurred in response, or secondary, to manifest gambling-induced financial problems.

The frequency and value of offences constitutes a significant legal and social cost to the community. On average, each offending gambler was found to have committed a median of ten offences over a period of ten years. The median monetary value per offence was $300 with a mean value of $4,264. Approximately 14 per cent reported offences ranging between $13,000 and $250,000.