NJ Lawmakers Move Gambling Addiction Court Program Forward

New Jersey is one step closer to becoming the third state to institute a gambling addiction diversion court, a move advocates say is necessary to assist a growing number of people displaying problematic behaviors.

On March 20, the state Assembly Tourism, Gaming & The Arts Committee unanimously moved bill A420, establishing a treatment court program for gamblers similar to drug and recovery courts. In NJ, drug courts have proven effective for those convicted of nonviolent offenses directly related to their diagnosed addictions.

Retired Judge Cheryl Moss, an NJ native who served on Nevada’s Eighth Judicial District Court, created the nation’s first gambling treatment court in Las Vegas and Clark County. She testified Monday and urged lawmakers to act.

As gambling becomes easier and more accessible, particularly in NJ, where online gaming generates nearly as much monthly revenue as Atlantic City casinos, Moss told lawmakers that more and more people are in jeopardy of developing some type of gambling-related problem.

“The amount of gaming (here) is just astronomical, and I think it is definitely a social problem,” Moss said.

Stopping the revolving door of addiction recidivism

The gambling diversion court in Nevada has successfully graduated six individuals, with six others currently enrolled, Moss said. She said those suffering from gambling-related disorders are “human beings” who deserve compassion.

“These types of people don’t belong in incarceration,” the retired judge said. “What they do need is treatment, they need help to rehabilitate so they don’t go back to a life of crime. If they go to prison, they don’t get help for their gambling problem. They’ll get out and they’ll just do the same thing. And it’ll be a revolving door.”

Admitting there’s a problem is the first step to recovery

The seven-member Assembly committee includes a former AC casino executive and an ex-mayor of Atlantic City.

Committee Chairman Ralph Caputo, the former casino exec, is a primary sponsor of the proposed legislation establishing a gambling treatment diversion court program. Caputo said he read an op-ed by Moss and admitted that although lawmakers knew the state had an “addiction problem,” they “did not have any solution.”

“As someone … experienced in the gaming business, I completely understand what happens to people,” he said. “I’m not really tuned into what’s going on now because I’m not in it. But I could just imagine how this (problem) has expanded because of the opportunities for people to gamble. So it’s a sad situation when somebody gets that rope that there’s no way out.”

NJ outpacing the nation in problem gambling rates

Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, said a recent study shows NJ’s rate for “serious problem gambling” is three times the national average. Legal sports betting is creating another concern among problem gambling advocates because of who is most apt to participate.

“What we’re finding with sports wagering is it really appeals to the young,” Nower said Monday. “And the fastest growing group are emerging adults who typically are higher risk-takers and have more impulsivity. The younger people start, the more likely they are to develop a problem.”

Former addict says prison can fuel problem gambling

Dan Trolaro, the one-time assistant executive director for The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, is a recovering gambling addict. As a former financial planner, Trolaro embezzled over $2 million from clients to fuel his gambling. He spent eight months of a six-year sentence in prison and another three years in an intensive supervision program.

Trolaro told the committee that “gambling occurs every day in prison,” and incarceration for nonviolent offenders may “not always (be) the healthiest way” to help.

The cost of incarcerating first-time, nonviolent offenders in NJ — such as those who would be eligible for the diversion court program — is about $61,000 per year.

“Perhaps there’s a better way instead of warehousing addiction to help work with a person who’s gone through traumatic events and experiences to say, ‘Hey, listen, let’s take a look at this. Let’s do a full analysis. Let’s get the treatment you deserve. Let’s put you on a program and stay the course.’”

More details on NJ’s gambling treatment diversion court

The proposed bill would create gambling diversion courts in three vicinages: north, central and south. The Administrative Office of the Courts would oversee the program.

Andrea Johnson, liaison for the AOC, said the courts supported the spirit of the proposed bill but suggested that gambling addicts be directed to existing diversion programs.

The legislation has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. The NJ Casino Control Commission recently adopted an annual resolution in support, and Gov. Phil Murphy proclaimed the same.

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