Monday, June 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Nevada, gambling capital of America, has also long been the country’s problem gambling capital.
The only significant statewide study on the topic, in 2002, showed that about 6.4 percent of the state’s adults were either problem or pathological gamblers — almost one in 15 Nevadans. And Gamblers Anonymous has more active chapters in the Las Vegas Valley than in any other metropolitan area in the world.
Yet before 2005, Nevada officials barely acknowledged the problem, or that myriad social costs were associated with it.
Times have changed.
In 2005 legislators passed the state’s first problem gambling funding bill — meager though it was compared with other states’ programs — setting aside $2.5 million in slot machine taxes to create a state fund to help prevent and treat problem gambling. This session, legislators jumped from behind the curve to way ahead of it, passing Assembly Bill 102, which allows judges to send convicts who are problem gamblers into treatment instead of prison.
On Friday morning Gov. Jim Gibbons signed the measure into law.
Here’s how it works: If a judge has reason to believe a convicted criminal is also a problem gambler, the judge can decide to have the person screened by a mental health professional. If the convict is found to be a problem gambler, the judge may place him under supervision for one to three years.
During this time, the problem gambler’s sentence would be deferred, and in most cases he would receive treatment as an outpatient. The judge could also order the problem gambler to perform community service.
If the gambler is treated satisfactorily and otherwise meets the conditions of the judge, the conviction would be set aside. If not, the judge could impose a prison sentence.
Some criminals won’t be allowed into the program, including domestic and child abusers.
Prosecutors opposed the bill even though some of their issues were addressed in a late amendment intended to ensure that the law applies only to those who commit crimes as a result of a gambling addiction. The amendment also requires restitution to anyone the gambler may have stolen or embezzled from.
Gaming companies, including MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands, as well as the Nevada Resort Association, supported the bill.
“It’s a good piece of legislation,” said Alan Feldman, MGM Mirage’s senior vice president of public affairs, who added that simply punishing those who commit crimes to support their gambling habits hasn’t worked.
“If you don’t create a problem gambling court, you do nothing to address the underlying problem,” said Feldman, a board member of the National Center for Responsible Gaming, an industry-funded research group.
The country’s first gambling treatment court opened outside Buffalo, N.Y., in 2001. It was modeled after other “therapy” or “diversion” courts, which take alcoholics, drug abusers and others believed to have committed their usually nonviolent crimes as a result of addictions.
Emphasizing treating the addiction, as opposed to solely punishing the offender with jail time, the theory is, will reduce recidivism. Also, the recovered addict, as well as society — which no longer has to deal with his criminal behavior — benefits.
Most states have drug courts. Nevada is now among the few, including New York and Louisiana, to allow a gambling diversion program.
One of the prime movers behind the gambling court bill, Reno Justice of the Peace Harold Albright, said the program will work through counties’ existing diversion courts, though no county will be obligated to set up such a program.
Albright runs a misdemeanor drug court that has cut recidivism to less than 15 percent, he said. “The success of these courts over the last decade has been proven, and it made it easier to sell this program.”
There are other reasons why AB102 passed, said Carol O’Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling.
Attitudes of legislators and others in power have shifted. They no longer see problem gamblers as people who have moral failings and deserve only to be punished for it, she said.
In the past, many saw it as a gaming industry problem and not a human issue the state needed to concern itself with. Now “there’s more of an openness that it can be addressed as a public health issue,” O’Hare said.
The success of AB102 showed how much attitudes have changed. Not only did Republicans mostly join Democrats in support — just eight legislators of 63 in both houses voted against it. Gaming and hospitality lobbyists joined counselors and treatment advocates in pushing the bill.
And then there is Gibbons.
According to a 1999 Sun story, the governor, then a congressman, sent a letter to fellow lawmakers touting new research that bolstered the economic benefits of gaming while “debunking myths about the extent of gaming’s social costs.” That prompted an angry exchange between Gibbons and a prominent gambling critic, who accused him of trying to “minimize the pain and misery caused by gambling addiction.”
Fast forward a decade.
According to Gibbons spokesman Dan Burns, the governor’s main concern with the bill was that it might create an unfunded mandate to the counties, to hire new judges or provide new courtrooms for gambling courts. Once disabused of that notion, Gibbons was on board.
“He thought it was a good idea,” Burns said.