Cuyahoga County Court System Creates Problem Gambling Addiction Program

Individuals convicted of crimes stemming from problem gambling will have diversion program
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As the launch date for sports wagering in Ohio nears, concerns about problem gambling are also at the forefront.

In northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court is beginning a Problem Gambling Addiction Program to deal with criminal charges stemming from problem gambling. It’s the first such court program of this kind in the state and one of the few in the country.

The universal launch date for sports betting in Ohio is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2023. It’s anticipated that the number of individuals with problem gambling issues will increase with the launch of sports betting in the Buckeye State.

“A primary goal of our court is to help individuals overcome the difficulties that brought them into the justice system,” Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan J. Sheehan said in a public statement. “By treating a person’s problem gambling addiction, we hope to eliminate the source of these criminal acts.”

Problem gambling is defined as the urge to gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. A 2017 Ohio Gambling Survey reported that 10.3 percent of the general adult population can be recognized as low-risk, moderate-risk, or problem gamblers.  An estimated 0.9 percent fit the profile of problem gamblers.

Program has a precedent in Nevada

The Problem Gambling Addiction Program is being developed by the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in partnership with Recovery Resources and Ohio for Responsible Gambling, which is a group collaboration involving the Ohio Lottery Commission, the Ohio Casino Control Commission, the Ohio State Racing Commission, and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.  

“We are pleased to see this Problem Gambling Addiction Program launched in Cuyahoga County,” said Lori Criss, director of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “Governor Mike DeWine’s focus on addressing mental illness and addictions for overall wellness has changed thousands of lives for the better. This program will encourage recovery for those with gambling problems.” 

Criminal defendants who may have a gambling problem are identified through a gambling assessment program. The program is being created to accommodate up to 50 individuals, and candidates for the program will be referred by the judge assigned to their case. Individuals who complete the program may have the opportunity to have any felony charge dismissed to avoid having a felony conviction on their record.

Gambling Recovery Officers, or specially trained court probation officers, will manage the Problem Gambling Addiction Program. The Gambling Recovery Officers will work alongside Recovery Resources and certified counselors, who will use programming to assist individuals with breaking the cycle of problem gambling.

A model for the program exists in Nevada, where a diversion court for problem gamblers charged with non-violent offenses began operating in 2018, many years after enabling legislation for it was enacted. Other states including New Jersey have seen bills introduced to create something similar, with officials noting the potential budget savings from reduced incarcerations. The former Michigan lawmaker who sponsored that state’s online gaming and sports betting legislation recently stated he wished such a court had been part of the gambling expansion law.

Program potentially a win-win

Keith Whyte, National Council on Problem Gambling executive director, endorsed the concept of gambling courts to work with individuals dealing with addiction issues. He said about a half-dozen states have had gambling courts in place to address problem gambling, but most haven’t been able to sustain their existence for various reasons.

Whyte was more optimistic about the future of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court program.

“We think this is the initiative that has legs,” Whyte said. “We think this is the initiative that will become the national model.”

Whyte noted the involvement of multiple government agencies as reason to think it will prove successful in helping individuals and the county deal with problem gambling issues. Such programs can help individuals deal with “ethical and economical obligations,” he suggested, while offering them an opportunity to avoid receiving a felony conviction and jail time and reducing the number of costly court cases.

Whyte also observed that the program could help reduce prison overcrowding while making it possible for individuals to pay back debts they accumulated related to their gambling problem.

“I predict there’s going to be a net positive for the state and individuals,” Whyte said. “This is one of those situations where there are no losers, and only winners.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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