Problem gambling and crime


The Howard League for Penal Reform launched The Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling in 2019, and it is scheduled to end next year.

The Commission seeks to answer three questions:

  1. What are the links between problem gambling and crime?
  2. What impact do these links have on communities and society?
  3. What should be done?

A briefing has been published to summarise the evidence that has been found to date, along with new research for sentencers. Some initial recommendations have also been made to government and policymakers.

Key points

  • problem gambling leads to crime

Problem gambling is an escalating addiction leading to a need for escalating funds.

  • lack of knowledge

There is a lack of targeted activity or knowledge with regards to crime related to problem gambling.

  • mental disorder

Problem gambling is a recognised mental health disorder, but it is not dealt with by the criminal justice system appropriately when dealing with related offending.

  • responses

The Commission found a danger that responses to crime and problem offending can lead to “up-tariffing”, such as imposing punitive community orders instead of a fine. They said the focus should be on diversion from the criminal justice system whenever possible.

  • good practice

Examples of good practice were found, in particular when the police make contact with offenders where problem gambling is an issue.

  • improvements

The first step recommended is for the Ministry of Justice to review the improvements that could be made, including awareness-raising and training among practitioners, assessing offenders, and improving specialist services.

The Sentencing Council would need to guide any improvements so that crime linked to problem gambling is appropriately dealt with in court.

Link to crime

Past research has shown a link between gambling and the commission of offences. A wide range of offending takes place, not just theft and robbery but also street robberies, domestic abuse and child neglect. More detailed research showed that problem gambling that is prolonged and persistent is more likely to lead to criminality.

Problem gambling or addiction is a behavioural disorder, but it is not seen as a mitigating factor in sentencing the same way as other disorders may be.

The gambling industry has the strongest understanding of the link between crime and problem gambling. Within the statutory remit of the Gambling Commission is the reduction of crime through regulation. An example of their action would include steps taken by the industry to limit the opportunities for individuals to use the proceeds of crime to gamble, using affordability and source of funds checks.

Lack of knowledge

The Commission made inquiries within the criminal justice system and found a lack of knowledge or targeted activity in respect of crime related to problem gambling. There is limited guidance available in probation areas to support the assessment of individuals or advice on local services. Prisons also do not screen for evidence of problem gambling.

-at the police station

The support in police settings for mental health or addiction is limited, and witnesses said there was a lack of understanding of gambling addiction. The Commission is to undertake research into screening by police forces when a person is brought into custody. They are also going to consider the police strategy to identify gambling problems and how they seek to support those identified with a problem.

-during court proceedings

Witnesses told of a lack of understanding of problem gambling from their legal team and also a lack of judicial knowledge. The prosecution did not escape criticism; they focused on the severity and financial benefit without understanding the lack of financial profit given an escalating spiral of debt.

-in prison/probation

A total lack of support in prison was referred to by witnesses, along with a lack of understanding. There were also barriers to accessing that support admitting an addiction was not encouraged. No tailored support was available in the probation service, although there was an awareness and support was given in arranging conditions on orders to allow attendance at Gambling Anonymous meetings.

Proceeds of Crime

Those with a gambling addiction are said not to benefit financially as any wins were placed again as bets. The Proceeds of Crime procedure is to take the benefit of any criminal conduct from the offender. The regime assumes there are realisable assets to take from the offender bu in cases of problem gambling; the offender turns to crime after all assets have been used. Another consideration should be the hidden nature of the addiction, with any realisable assets being within the family unit. In that case, the family would suffer more than the offender from any confiscation. Any repayment of a debt may incite further offending.

Stolen money can be recouped in other ways than directly from the offender. The gambling company could face regulatory investigations in respect of money laundering failures or social responsibility. Compensation can be obtained from those companies if they can be implied in the offending, by not checking the source of funds, for example.


The Commission considered areas of good practice from a pilot in Cheshire that screened for problem gambling at the point of arrest and a gambling project in Hertfordshire. These demonstrated that the linkages between the various stages in the criminal justice system, and treatment providers, could be improved.

Their recommendation, at this stage, is for other parts of the criminal justice system to take the lead in the developing area. The good practice could be extended into the new unified probation service model, and the Ministry of Justice can take steps to improve practice and build a picture of the prevalence of crime in problem gambling.

The first recommended steps for the Ministry of Justice are:

  • awareness-raising and training among practitioners;
  • assessment of individuals in the criminal justice system;
  • identifying specialist services; and
  • signposting to those services.


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[Image credit: “Gamble” by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0  ]