Retired Nevada Judge Cheryl Moss spent two years running a novel Gambling Treatment Diversion Court in Clark County, and she would love to see Pennsylvania and other states adopt the model.
The program gives non-violent criminal offenders whose crimes were connected to gambling addiction a chance to stay out of prison and wipe their records clean, if they complete a prescribed recovery program.
“It is a court where we help people, and I like to think it’s a court where we save lives,” Moss, a family court judge for 22 years, told several hundred listeners Thursday in a livestreamed conference of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.
Gambling therapists and other participants heard Moss describe the start of the program in Nevada, which was enabled by 2009 legislation but took nearly a decade to get off the ground.
Before her own retirement in January, she handled nine criminal defendants — whom she prefers to refer to as “participants” — who voluntarily chose to enter the gambling court program, similar to alternative court paths that are common in many states for non-violent drug offenders.
The participants would report directly to her twice weekly in addition to agreeing to treatment therapy, support groups, restitution programs, random drug testing, and other conditions. They commit to the program for a period running between 18 and 36 months.
While the gambling court is still young, Moss said she is confident it is working well for the state — in terms of reducing what it spends on unnecessary incarcerations — as well as for the participants themselves.
“A lot of problem gamblers arrested for the first time never had a traffic ticket in their life,” she said.
Pennsylvania effort in very early stages
In retirement, Moss is devoting time to advocacy for other states to do for addicted gamblers what Nevada has done, which itself came after a similar pilot program used years ago by a judge in Amherst, N.Y. She is working with a coalition trying to get it adopted in New Jersey, where legislation has already been introduced and the group has a website for the initiative.
Pennsylvania is not as far along, Josh Ercole, executive director of the state’s nonprofit compulsive gambling council, told Penn Bets in an interview. He and others have discussed the idea off and on with legislators and judges, Ercole said, and the session with Moss Thursday was intended to reinvigorate the possibility.
“One of the challenges in a state as big as Pennsylvania is coming up with an approach that makes sense,” he said. “You see not only casinos all across the state, but now online sports and casino gambling statewide. Where would there be a need for a court like this? … With Pennsylvania having 67 counties, it could be something that starts in a beta format, and if there’s a level of success, you could see something like that catching on elsewhere.”
He said there’s no solid research on just how many criminal defendants committed their offenses due all or in part to gambling habits. In the Nevada court, before they can be deemed eligible for the program the defendants must undergo assessment by a certified clinician confirming their disease.
The fact that compulsive gambling is such a hidden addiction compared to others means it’s often overlooked for people in need of help, including those driven to criminal acts such as theft and embezzlement to access their gambling funds or make up for losses, Ercole said. If they are sent to prison, the state ends up paying tens of thousands of dollars for their care, and they receive no help with the underlying condition that put them there.
“If there’s an alternative program to go through the steps of restitution and therapy and put a form of reorganization back into their lives, that’s a huge benefit,” said Ercole, who expects stakeholders to have additional discussion about the possibility in Pennsylvania in coming weeks and months.
Ex-lawyer who was an addict makes his case
One of those joining Moss in advocating for a gambling court during Thursday’s conference was Harry Levant, who had been a longtime Philadelphia area lawyer until he said his gambling addiction drove him to commit finance-related felonies to which he pleaded guilty in 2015.
“Of course, I knew it was wrong, but that’s the definition of addiction,” Levant said. “The definition of addiction is, despite knowing something is wrong and knowing you are doing harm to yourself and others, you are powerless to stop it.”
He said he contemplated suicide before finally acknowledging the disease and the need to get help and take accountability. That included putting himself before the mercy of a judge in Philadelphia who took a probationary approach with him similar to the purpose that a Gambling Treatment Diversion Court would serve.
“I paraphrase him, but his honor said if we as a court are sitting here watching an individual confess to what they have done and asking for help, if we as a court can’t help such a person, then why are we here?”
Now, Levant said, it’s time for casinos, online operators, and other stakeholders benefiting economically from the growth of legalized gambling in Pennsylvania to back such an approach systemically, joining those directly involved in combatting problem gambling to get legislators and court officials on board as well.
“Let’s put our minds together to create a Gambling Treatment Diversion Court,” the ex-lawyer and ex-gambler said. “Treatment courts will save lives and save families, and who in the gambling industry and in the treatment world doesn’t want to prevent harm?”