Russell Webster, Criminal Justice Researcher and Consultant, shares his insights about our latest pilot with London Probation Service…
For the last six months, I have been working with GamCare’s Criminal Justice team to help promote their overall goal of ensuring that people with gambling problems are identified and provided with relevant support at every stage of the criminal justice system (CJS). Over this period, I have spoken to dozens of criminal justice professionals, leading gambling treatment and support experts and people with lived experience of both gambling and the CJS. Below are the conclusions I have reached so far.
Gambling-related activity in the CJS
Almost everyone I spoke to considered gambling harms in the criminal justice system to be an issue that required attention but, with the exception of those directly involved in gambling pilots or developing gambling strategies, most agencies were not aware of or actively developing specific gambling-focused work.
Encouragingly, things are starting to change at a national level on a number of fronts. People affected by gambling harms will be specifically highlighted in the next iteration of the national Liaison and Diversion specification. More directly relevant to readers of Probation Quarterly, HMPPS is in the process of developing a gambling framework and is engaging in a number of related work streams including a gambling needs assessment of every prison and the production of briefings and toolkits for probation staff.
Despite this welcome activity, it is likely that progress will be slow. For example, sentences have expressed a desire for a gambling-specific community disposal (see Sarah Page’s article in this edition of PQ), something which HMPPS acknowledges and wishes to fulfil but also acknowledges is unlikely to be realised in the next year or so. As readers will know, the (re-)unification of the probation service is an ongoing project with staff shortages making the implementation of new initiatives challenging to use that increasingly over-used euphemism.
There are two significant barriers which must be overcome in order to achieve GamCare’s goal of identifying and providing help to everyone with a gambling issue at every point of the CJS. The first concern is awareness of the growing availability of gambling support and treatment. There has been a rapid rise in the range of gambling treatment available across the country, including the development of seven new NHS gambling clinics. GamCare and its treatment partners provide a range of online and in person treatment options, with GamCare’s National Helpline (0808 8020 133) the best starting point for many. The needs of women gamblers are also being increasingly recognised. However, analysis of Helpline referral data reveals a very small proportion of referrals and contacts come from the criminal justice system.
The second barrier is that people with gambling problems are not easily identified as a group. Unlike people with drug and/or alcohol problems, they do not sometimes turn up for appointments intoxicated or showing symptoms of withdrawal. Nor is there a typical offence profile for people with gambling problems. Before starting this work, I had assumed that most people with gambling problems who came into contact with the CJS would do so because of offences of theft or deception, needing to secure funds to feed their gambling problem. However, recent research from the Howard League’s Commission on Crime and gambling related harms (published in June this year) suggest this is not the case.
The researchers used Freedom of Information Requests sent to every police force in England & Wales to ask for information about crimes recorded between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2020 with the key word “gambling”. Researchers categorised all the crimes where gambling was mentioned and found that 45% recorded crimes where gambling was mentioned were in the violence against the person category, almost double the proportion (24%) in the theft category. Finally, many people whose gambling has escalated to the point where it causes them problems, have learnt to conceal their activities from family and friends and are unlikely to disclose gambling as a concern until they have developed a level of trust in a professional helping relationship.
To summarise the state of play, the good news is that there is a general acknowledgement across the CJS that gambling is an important but hitherto mainly neglected issue related to offending and that national policy makers are keen to address unmet needs. More good news is the growth of gambling support and treatment across England & Wales. On the other hand, progress by HMPPS and other national criminal justice bodies is slow (the same Howard League research discussed above found that four in 10 police forces do not screen for gambling harms at the police station) and that the commissioning of specific offender-focused gambling services is some way off.
In response, GamCare has adopted a dual-pronged approach, put simply: top-down: support and lobby HMPPS and others for better identification of and support services for people with gambling problems; and bottom-up: develop pilot models of best practice to develop replicable models. The aim is that policy and practice initiatives will reinforce each other and result in a systemic approach to tackling gambling-related harm across the criminal justice system.
The rest of this article describes a pilot model of best practice that GamCare and London probation have developed in partnership.
The main components of the pilot are to:
- Develop and deliver a bespoke gambling training package for 1,000 London NPS staff.
- Develop a gambling screening question to be added to London probation’s assessment process.
- Develop a brief intervention workbook for probation staff to use with people on probation.
- Provide GamCare resources for use in probation settings – promo video, posters, user leaflets.
- Develop a referral pathway between London NPS and GamCare London.
Progress so far
There has been steady progress to date:
- 125 probation staff have participated in the online training programme.
- The workbook has been developed and is available both as an online resource or a booklet which can be printed out and worked through with the person on probation. The contents of the workbook were heavily influenced by a thought leadership group of people with lived experience of gambling and the CJS specifically convened by GamCare. It comprises three sections:
- Explore gambling behaviour by looking at where someone might gamble, what with, when and why.
- Looks at the different gambling related harms, including debt, mental health and relationship breakdown and uses activities to explore potential behaviour change. There is an action plan template reproduced below.
- Looks at how to access support.
- The treatment pathway has been developed and referrals for help to the London GamCare treatment team are being made. Treatment and support are offered both by remote video calls and face-to-face. GamCare also offers people on probation the opportunity to use their 24/7 online message board which provides a safe and secure space for people to explore their situation and a live text chatroom which enables people to speak to others in similar situations about their experiences and find support.
- In an exciting new development, London’s GamCare team now offers face-to-face support from 20 branches of NatWest across London. The partnership with the bank enables GamCare to offer a discreet and accessible service with sessions taking place within branches’ consulting rooms.
The pilot will be evaluated and further findings will be available next year.
Growing awareness of the large (and increasing) numbers of people in contact with the criminal justice system is driving developments in both policy and practice. This momentum is likely to be accelerated when we have more reliable indicators of the scale of need amongst people on probation.
While the GamCare/HMPPS survey of gambling need within our custodial establishments will provide the first large scale evidence of levels of need within the prison system, we are some way off any mechanism for examining gambling need amongst people on probation. Ultimately, it will probably only be the formal recording of gambling as a criminogenic need within OASys which will generate this information.
However, many practitioners might be resistant to an expanded OASys form and it raises additional questions around how to incorporate it: Should it be a separate section, included within Finance, Benefit & Debt questions or integrated into a new addictions section, alongside Drugs and Alcohol? This will be a difficult problem to solve.
In the meantime, it is important to continue pushing the development of HMPPS gambling policy whilst – at the same time – developing pilot interventions at different points in the criminal justice system and expanding gambling treatment capacity nationally.