Nearly 500 people in Pennsylvania entered a casino last year and left with a criminal charge.
They had placed themselves on the state’s self-exclusion list, which allows individuals with gambling addictions to voluntarily ban themselves from casinos. Now, a state rep. from Allegheny County wants to offer those offenders treatment, as well as punishment.
A person who wants to be on the list (for one year, five or a lifetime) must appear in Harrisburg and submit a request that states, “If I am identified on the gaming floor or if I engage in gaming activity at any licensed gaming facility during my period of self-exclusion … I will be subject to arrest and prosecution for criminal trespass.”
Simple trespass is a summary offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.
There were 7,414 people on the self-exclusion list as of Dec. 31, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. There have been 3,108 violations in the list’s roughly 10-year history, with 368 people violating the ban twice, 95 three times and 79 four or more.
In 2016, 498 people on the list were charged for violating the self-exclusion list. State Police don’t have information on the disposition of those cases and could not provide information about the locations of those charged. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office also does not keep track of how many people are charged with criminal trespass stemming from their involvement with the list.
State Rep. Jason Ortitay, who represents the suburbs west of Pittsburgh in Allegheny and Washington counties, introduced a bill Wednesday that would allow judges to offer treatment — in addition to punishment.
“Rather than simply imposing criminal penalties on these individuals, I believe that these individuals need to be provided the opportunity to seek problem gambling treatment,” Ortitay, who did not respond to request for comment, wrote in a co-sponsorship memo.
If a person on the list is convicted or admitted to a pretrial diversion program, the bill would allow a judge to also order an evaluation to see “if the person has a gambling disorder and whether there is a need for counseling or treatment as part of the sentence.” Similar legislation was introduced during the Pa. Legislature’s last session and was unanimously approved by the Senate.
Andrew Eppich, a licensed clinical social worker and area therapist who treats gambling addiction, said he supports a bill that would offer additional treatment options.
“We tend to take a real punitive [approach], thinking that’s going to reinforce positive results, and it doesn’t,” he said. “You haven’t educated anybody. You’ve punished them. You’ve shamed them.”
Eppich said something like the self-exclusion list puts a barrier between the addicted person and the casino, but he couldn’t say how effective it is “unless you’re actually treating the addiction itself.” As he pointed out, the state will remove people who requested to be on the list for one or five years at the end of that term. “It’s a hinderance, more than a consequence,” he said.
The self-exclusion list was created as part of the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act, the 2004 legislation that allowed casinos to operate in the commonwealth.
Elizabeth Lanza, director of the PGCB’s Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling, called the self-exclusion program “an effective and proven tool to assist an individual with a gambling disorder in removing himself or herself from the temptation of gambling,” in a press release promoting March as Problem Gambling Awareness Month.
Richard McGarvey, a PGCB spokesman, stressed that the list is not treatment, but rather “another way to stay out of a casino.”
If a person on the list doesn’t stay out of a casino and is allowed to gamble, the casino can be held liable. Locally, PGCB fined the operator of the Meadows Casino in Washington County $40,000 last April for allowing two self-excluded men to gamble. Rivers Casino on the North Shore was fined for the offense in 2015.
A spokesman for the Pittsburgh casino said it “strongly supports the PGCB in its efforts to prevent self-excluded individuals from gaming.”
“We contribute funds annually to support statewide awareness and prevention programs,” Garrett Allen said via email. “Additionally, we have ongoing training for our team members to help identify and assist individuals who may need help. Our guests will find resource materials on the gaming floor year-round, and in recognition of Problem Gambling Awareness Month, we’re currently running a poster campaign and hosting an information booth.”
While PGCB and the casinos promote hotlines gamblers can call to seek help, Eppich said there aren’t enough resources for people with gambling addictions in the Pittsburgh area.
“We’re just now, in the past maybe seven to 10 years, really coming to an understanding of gambling addiction and actually qualifying it as a compulsive addiction,” he said.
And like all addictions, it’s not a simple thing to overcome.
“It’s so misunderstood still,” Eppich said. “It’s stigmatized.”