PEOPLE WHOSE LIVES HAVE BEEN BLIGHTED by crime linked to gambling have spoken about the impact it had and what needs to change so that others are protected, as part of research published by the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms.

A new report, “Surviving, not living”: Lived experiences of crime and gambling, outlines the experiences of 22 people in England and Wales who have either been through the criminal justice system themselves or been affected by it as a family member.

It is the second major research project to be commissioned by the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms, which was set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform and is chaired by Lord Goldsmith QC. An earlier report, focused on sentencing, was published in October 2021.

The Commission is investigating the links between gambling harms and crime, what impact they have on communities and wider society, and what steps could be taken to reduce crime and make people safer.

Lord Goldsmith QC, Chair of the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms, said: “In their own words, 22 people affected by crime linked to gambling harm have told the Commission what happened to them and what needs to change. No one is better placed to inform and advise us and we are most grateful to them for coming forward to contribute.

“The shocking details of this powerful report provide further evidence that, while gambling can and often does lead to crime, there is currently insufficient knowledge or action within the criminal justice system to address the issue properly and protect people from harm.

“It is abundantly clear that a more targeted approach is needed to prevent many more lives being ruined.”

One of the participants, identified as ‘Paul 1’ in the study, said: “It’s not just me, it’s a lot of people, we believe that the whole system is broken from the very start at point of arrest right through to release from prison; and everywhere in between. I think there’s so much work to be done on it.”

The report recommends that there should be systematic screening and assessment of people entering police custody suites and prisons to ascertain whether they have experienced gambling harms and to identify where there is a need for further support.

Professionals working in criminal justice – including police, probation staff, the judiciary, solicitors, barristers and prison staff – should be more aware of the nature of gambling harms, and there should be better access to support and treatment for people at each stage of their journey through the system.

The report recommends that the presence of gambling harms should be considered as a mitigating factor at sentencing. It calls for more use of community sentences, instead of prison, and suggests a review of the use of the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) in cases where crimes have been committed as a result of gambling addiction.

Other recommendations include better support for families, a call for formal recording of the prevalence of suicides arising from gambling harms, and a reform of gambling advertising.

The research, led by Dr Lauren Smith, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Lincoln, involved semi-structured interviews with 18 participants, 17 male and one female, who had been directly impacted by crime and gambling harm. The other four participants, all women, were family members of people directly impacted. Two were married to other participants and two were the ex-wives of people who did not participate.

The interviews invited participants to share their experiences from when they first engaged in gambling and then consider how their gambling escalated and resulted in the commission of crime, what happened to them at each step of their journey through the criminal justice system, the impact this had on themselves and others, what interventions or treatments they received, and what needed to happen in future to aid prevention and better support people.

Most participants said that they had amassed large amounts of debt through gambling before committing an offence. Some reported that they had stolen from friends or family to fund their gambling addiction. The majority, however, had stolen from their employers, often in increasing amounts over time when they did not get caught.

For some participants, their first contact with the police was due to significant safeguarding concerns relating to self-harm. For the majority, however, the first contact was at the point of arrest, often because they had handed themselves in at the police station.

Many participants either owned up to their employer about what they had done or handed themselves in to police, or both, because they felt things were so out of control.

‘Stephen’ said: “I just plonked myself in reception and said – I need to report a crime. It’s my own crime. And at the start they didn’t really know what to do, but eventually I said that I wasn’t leaving because reception said – Are you sure about this? Do you want to take time and come back? I just said – No.”

‘Andy’ said: “When I got caught it was kind of a massive relief. I got to the point where I was gambling for the sake of it…it became a chore; it wasn’t a thrill. It was like – thank God, it was a relief.”

Overall, there was a reported lack of practical support for people in relation to gambling harms. While there was screening for drug and alcohol addiction at the police station, there was none for gambling addiction.

‘Emma’, describing what happened to her partner, said: “He wasn’t screened when he went to the police for his interview. They screened him for drugs and alcohol and asked him if he had a drug and alcohol addiction, he said ‘no’, he said, ‘but I do have a gambling addiction’, and he said that the police officer just made a note of it, didn’t know what to do with it…”

The research highlighted an apparent lack of specific understanding among solicitors and barristers in relation to gambling harms. While some solicitors had advised their clients to be honest and open during police interview, many participants had been advised to reply ‘no comment’ throughout. This created an uncomfortable dissonance with the fact that many people were relieved or had handed themselves in and therefore wanted to tell the police everything.

Experiences between initial contact with the police and attending court, whether on bail or released under investigation, were mixed. This period was usually lengthy, from about six months to three years. Some participants were able to work towards recovery, but others found it more difficult. Many felt they could not progress as quickly in their recovery due to the uncertainty and the fact that prison was within the sentencing guidelines for their offences.

One participant, ‘Jordan’, explained that he began gambling more heavily again when, after a year of being released under investigation, he received a letter stating that he would be charged.

‘Jordan’ said: “It was a shock, even though I was expecting it, maybe I wasn’t at that point…it was a year and a half, and I hadn’t heard anything, and I was thinking maybe they have forgotten about me here, but when I got it was a shock, my heart sank, I just became a complete mess; I went into a massive spiral of gambling for what was a year or so.”

Many participants described negative experiences as their cases came to court. During the preparation of pre-sentence reports, it was noted that there often appeared to be little understanding about gambling addiction and little focus on gambling harms.  There was also a perceived lack of understanding and empathy among crown court judges. In many of the cases, there was no indication of gambling harms as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

‘Nick’ said: “I would strongly argue with the person on the other side of the argument and ask them why gambling addiction should not be a mitigating circumstance, because it should be. Because with addiction, you have no control. The addiction controls you; you don’t control it.”

Participants with experience of prison reported that there was no systematic assessment or screening for gambling harms and no specific support. Even when they asked staff about support, they were told that gambling was not an issue and there was nothing available to them. Some participants ended up attending drug and alcohol sessions instead.

Gambling for financial gain is prohibited in prisons, but the research found pervasive evidence of gambling as a significant part of prison sub-culture. In many circumstances, staff were aware of the activities, and in some circumstances, facilitated the behaviour.

‘Rob’ said: “Our wing had an organised gambling committee. Every Saturday, this one guy produced a football accumulator…it was about 15 of the guys on the wing used to put a pound in…the officers knew about it, the officers even photocopied the paperwork every week.”

‘Thomas’ said: “They are going around doing a sweepstake giving everybody two horses out of a hat and charging £2.00, and I said I didn’t wanna do it, but that was messing up the numbers because it would mean that two horses were left in the hat; so, there were a couple of people that reacted quite aggressively; almost threatening.”

Some participants had been subject to confiscation orders under POCA. Guidance states that, for POCA proceedings to be brought against someone, there should be evidence that the person has benefited from their crime. However, participants consistently reported that they had not benefited from their crimes because all the money they had stolen had been gambled.

‘Matt’ said: “I didn’t have any proceeds. [Gambling operators] had the proceeds.” ‘John’ said: “They listed assets they allegedly had…on the POCA, but I had absolutely nothing at that point, not a penny to my name.”

POCA processes often seemed to impact on families the hardest, and this was even worse when relationships had broken down. One participant, ‘Claire’, discussed how her ex-husband was able to access legal representation because he was in prison, but she was unable to access any support because she would have to pay for it and could not afford to. She was repeatedly told by his barrister and the Crown Prosecution Service that she needed representation and that she was going to lose her home. In the end she was able to keep her home, but this was after the added stress of conducting research into POCA and representing herself.

* Read “Surviving, not living”: Lived experiences of crime and gambling here.

* More information on the Commission on Crime and Gambling Related Harms here.

* Source: Howard League for Penal Reform