Do Casinos Cause Crime?


12.20.09In the midst of an economic crisis, the U.S. gambling industry continues to grow–and so does the debate over its connection to crime.

It's a familiar, and sad, story: a 41-year-old housekeeper in Bangor, Maine, forged $40,000 in checks belonging to elderly people in the assisted-living home where she worked, then gambled it away at Hollywood Slots, a cavernous 1,000-slot-machine establishment that dominates one side of Bangor, an old, poor, church-spired New England town.

She pleaded guilty, blaming an addiction to gambling, and in 2008 received a three-year prison term.

But doesn’t Hollywood Slots deserve some blame? While mob-infested gambling largely belongs to another era, the nationwide proliferation of casinos continues to raise the question of whether such establishments create or enable desperate gambling addicts who break the law to support their habit.

The alleged link between casinos and crime, in fact, is bitterly debated across the country, particularly in financially stressed towns or states where lucrative gambling concessions provide needed revenue. A definitive resolution is unlikely any time soon, since attempts to scientifically prove (or disprove) the connection are usually trumped by moral, financial or political issues.

Meanwhile, the glitter of Las Vegas has spread to nearly every state. The United States has the dubious distinction of harboring the most casinos in the world–705, counting the 216 listed by the National Indian Gaming Association and the 489 represented by the American Gaming Association, the Washington lobby groups respectively for Indian and “commercial” casinos. France, the number-two country, has fewer than 200.

Las Vegas’s gold glitters in Washington, too. The spread of gambling casinos had Capitol Hill concerned about crime a few years ago, but the issue no longer excites much controversy–and that just may have something to do with the fact that the gambling lobby has become a powerful force in national politics. Congressional and presidential candidates alone received $28 million from gambling interests in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Capitol Hill debate on gambling now is on whether to legalize it on the internet.

But at the local level the anti-gambling troops work hard to keep the casinos and crime issue alive. The check-forger story was publicized by CasinosNo, a Maine organization that battles against perennial proposals for new casinos in the state. The group also drew attention recently to the fact that Bangor's crime rate jumped 26 per cent in the three years since the casino opened. In contrast, the group notes, two bigger Maine cities, Portland and Lewiston, experienced crime declines during that period.

“I don’t know if the crime rate increase is directly related to the casino,” says spokesman Dennis Bailey, “but it should be studied before we bring more slot machines to Maine.”

Next door in New Hampshire, Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, doesn’t feel more study is needed. “It’s a fact” that casinos bring crime, he says flatly. New Hampshire currently has no casinos, but it's not for lack of trying. According to Rubens, gambling interests have spent millions of dollars in lobbying activities and advertising to try to get the legislature to legalize them.

As proof of his allegation about crime, Rubens cites the comprehensive national study, “Casinos, Crime, and Community Costs,” published in 2006 in The Review of Economics and Statistics, a prestigious academic journal produced by Harvard and MIT. Like the leaders of other grassroots anti-gambling groups around the country, Rubens considers it the ultimate scientific authority on the subject.

The study by economists Earl Grinols, now of Baylor University, and David Mustard, of the University of Georgia, examined crime rates in every county in the nation covering a period of 20 years – from 1977, just before the first casinos outside Nevada were built in Atlantic City, to 1996. It concluded that opening a casino led to local crime increases averaging eight percent. (Grinols says the 10-year gap between data collection and publication is “not uncommon” in academia and the data didn’t become less relevant during that period since the study was of basic behavior.)

Grinols and Mustard’s findings made news, but not surprisingly they failed to persuade anyone on the other side of the issue. While anti-gambling forces used the findings to promote their case (United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, that state’s chief anti-casino group, has numbers from the study flashing on its website’s home page), the American Gaming Association was notably unworried. “In our minds the issue has been settled,” says Holly Thomsen, the associaton’s communications director.

How has it been settled? Despite the critics’ allegations and the Grinols-Mustard study, Thomsen says that on this issue people have voted with their feet. “People are pretty happy” with casinos, she says. She adds in an email: “The fears people have about crime accompanying a casino coming into a community simply don’t materialize once the casinos are actually there. In countless gaming jurisdictions across the country, law enforcement officers actually working in the community and around the casinos say crime hasn’t gone up.”

That lack of fear, at least, can be documented. Despite the recession (or perhaps because of it), the casino industry–with its lure of easy riches–continues to spread across the U.S. Kansas legalized casinos in 2007. In 2008 Colorado extended casino hours and legalized more games, Missouri abolished the casino loss limit, and Maryland legalized slots parlors. Ohio approved four big casinos just last month.

The gross annual wager

The prospect of tax revenues and casino jobs smoothed the way. Casinos have become a big, big business. Ten years ago legal gambling – including casinos, state lotteries, and horse tracks – was about a $50-billion enterprise. Now, according to industry analyst Christensen Capital Advisors, the “gross annual wager” of the United States is almost $100 billion, far ahead of spending on movies, spectator sports and theme parks.

Casinos raked in the most money, according to the American Gaming Association: $63 billion in 2008 in 45 states, toting up commercial and Indian casinos and the racetrack-related and slots-dominated “racinos” (Maine’s Hollywood Slots is one of these). Fifty-five million adults visited a casino in 2008, the trade association says – a quarter of the adult population.

With those numbers, it's easy to see why Washington has stayed out of the fray. “Nobody wants to take this issue on,” laments Rep. Frank Wolf, a conservative Virginia Republican. With both parties taking money from casino interests, he adds, “It’s a bipartisan problem.”

Ten years ago Wolf and other lawmakers opposed to casino expansion had more sway. Wolf was one of the moving forces behind the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, whose 1999 report stressed that “pathological” gamblers have a tendency to commit crimes to pay for their addiction. (Gambling addiction is a sickness, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and criminal activity is a symptom.) The report called for a 'pause' in casino expansion in order to provide more time for research. That didn't happen, but the 2006 Grinols-Mustard study filled in some of the gaps.

In addition to documenting increased crime rates in counties where casinos had opened, the study found that nearby counties also felt the impact and that a casino didn’t just move crime from elsewhere toward the casino’s county but created it. Grinols and Mustard had examined the seven serious FBI “index” offenses: aggravated assault, robbery, murder, burglary, auto theft, larceny, and rape. All except murder showed a significant increase.

The 2006 study remains the most definitive yet, says John Kindt, a legal policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who publishes papers on the social costs of gambling. “There’s nothing that can touch it,” he says. Dennis Delay, an economist who researches gambling issues for the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, adds: “The Grinols-Mustard study is probably state of the art.”

Other studies, though, suggest the link is arguable. University of Nevada at Reno professor Grant Stitt and his colleagues conducted federally financed research published in 2003 that compared crime-rate change in six “new casino” and six non-casino communities. Little difference was found. Stitt calls his own work the definitive one on the issue, with 19 academic papers resulting from it.

And pro-gambling forces argue that, statistically, reported crime increases around casinos are a result of bad number-crunching. In calculating the crime rate of a casino town, they say, the number of visitors to the casino should be added to the number of local residents, which Grinols and Mustard didn’t do. But if that’s done, the crime rate–the number of crimes in a given area divided by the population (generally expressed as crimes per 100,000 people)–usually drops significantly. This accurately gauges “the risk of being victimized” for both groups, says Douglas Walker, an economist at the College of Charleston.

Complicating the professorial part of this debate, though, and provoking finger-pointing about bias, some academics take money from the gambling industry (like Walker) and others are out front with their religious perspective (like Grinols and Mustard, both active in the Association of Christian Economists).

Then there’s the difficulty in singling out casinos as a factor in the overall crime picture. In Bangor, for example, law enforcement authorities and city officials attribute their rising crime rate to an increase in the number of methadone clinics as well as the worsening economy–not the local casino.

Grinols maintains, however, there’s no dispute that gambling causes crime. The only questions, he says, “are how big is the impact and can you get a good measurement.” Even the American Gaming Association agrees that gambling addiction is a social problem. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that a third of addicted gamblers had been arrested for a crime, compared to four percent of non-gamblers. A federally funded study by researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas of people arrested for crimes in Las Vegas and Des Moines reported in 2004 that nearly a third of pathological gamblers “admitted having committed robbery in the previous year. Approximately 13 percent had assaulted someone for money.”

On the other hand, that study noted that addicted gamblers tend to be drug and alcohol abusers and often had been in trouble with the law before they became addicted to gambling—a picture that fits with the claim that casinos don’t directly cause crime.

The real issue, however, may not be the individual gambler's addiction–but the government's. “Most gambling policies in the U.S. are guided principally by the anticipated economic benefits,” says a 2006 New Mexico State University study on the impact of Indian gambling in that state. Kindt, the Illinois professor, argues that government has been “corrupted” by casino money.

Whenever casino opponents get discouraged as they contemplate this fat wallet and the industry’s widespread support, they look for inspiration to the long, arduous battle to reign in the tobacco industry.

“This is going to go the same way as smoking,” says Tom Grey, a retired Methodist minister who is spokesman and field director for the Washington, D.C.-based Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation.

Grey foresees lawsuits against gambling interests similar to the successful suits against tobacco companies for pushing cigarettes on consumers despite the companies’ knowledge that nicotine is addictive. Although he concedes that at present his group is having trouble raising money, he says the gambling industry has overextended itself like Napoleon invading Russia, and now “the Russian winter is setting in.”

He concludes: “They’re trapped now.”

Maybe so. But considering the industry’s continuing growth the odds do not appear to be in the opponents’ favor.

Lance Tapley is a freelance investigative reporter based in Maine.

Photo by tricky via Flickr.

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