Judge Cheryl Moss witnessed stories of devastation while overseeing the Nevada Gambling Treatment Diversion Court, beginning with her first case, a grandmother who stole more than $500,000 from a Las Vegas plumbing business to fuel an addiction to video poker and slot machines.
In 2013, Jerry Nann Meador, who had never even had a speeding ticket, pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison. She spent 2½ years in a women's correctional center before being released and accepted into the state's gambling treatment court. Diversion treatment courts are an alternative to traditional incarceration. They are designed for non-violent criminals whose offenses were caused, in part, by an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling.
Meador's story attracted national attention. There were eye-catching headlines about the "gambling grandma." The public's reaction to her release was not empathetic.
"What a joke!" a reader wrote on the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Facebook page. "Are we not responsible for our own action?"
"This is really BS, as a responsible gambler for 50 years," another wrote.
Moss doesn't see it that way. The 54-year-old New Jersey native views problem gamblers as people struggling with a disease, not morally bankrupt degenerates. She tries to be the judge who doesn't judge them on their crimes, yet holds them accountable and helps to get their lives back in order.
"Sometimes you have to show a little tough love," Moss says. "I try to get people out of chaos."
Hundreds of millions of dollars will be risked on sporting events during March, most of it on the NCAA tournament, either through bracket pools or bets on individual games. Alongside the Madness, March is also Problem Gambling Awareness Month. It's an opportunity for advocates, like Moss, to spotlight what they fear will be a growing issue during the current sports betting boom.
Moss retired on Jan. 4 but says her work is just beginning. With regulated sports betting and online casino gambling spreading around the United States, she is aiming to bring gambling treatment courts to other states and, along the way, change the long-held stigma associated with problem gamblers.
"The biggest problem is how the public perceives them," Moss says. "They've got a disease, just like alcohol, that is beyond their control."
Experts on problem gambling hope she's successful -- and soon. They fear an increase in problem gambling is imminent, and there's no definitive way to stop it.
As long as there have been competitions, there have been people to bet on them. A percentage of those bettors develop gambling disorders, leading to personal and societal harm. The larger the pool of gamblers, the more people there will be who develop gambling addictions. It is inevitable.
Three years ago, Nevada was the only state with a comprehensive legal sports betting market. Today, licensed bookmakers are operating in 20 states and the District of Columbia, with more jurisdictions poised to get into the game as soon as this year.
Problem gambling rates have remained steady over the past decade at approximately 2-3% of Americans, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Indiana, which authorized sports betting in 2019, has not experienced an uptick in calls to problem gambling hotlines. Tennessee, however, has, including an increase in the number of callers who identify sports betting as their primary form of gambling. Overall, though, it's likely too early to draw conclusions from the expansion of regulated sports betting in the U.S.
Sportsbook operators should -- and are -- implementing responsible gambling messaging and tools, like the ability for customers to self-exclude themselves from placing bets. Limiting instant-gratification betting options that have shown to be conducive to compulsive behaviors also could be a step in the right direction, although bookmakers -- and sports leagues -- are pushing in-game wagering more than ever. Regardless, there is no vaccine for gambling disorders.
The best approach for sportsbook operators may be dedicating resources to quickly identify at-risk customers before they spiral out of control. It's then up to society to decide how to treat those who develop a gambling disorder and commit crimes to fuel their addiction. That's where diversion courts come into play.
Drug treatment courts are available in most states and have been effective:
• According to a 2012 study led by the National Institute of Justice, drug court participants were significantly less likely to relapse and committed fewer crimes after participating in the program than a comparison group of similar offenders.
• The National Association of Drug Court Professionals found that specialty courts reduced crime 45% more than other sentencing options, and participants in specialty courts are six times more likely to complete substance abuse treatment than those not involved in a judicial program.
Treatment court participants are subject to mandated restrictions, including, for example, regular drug testing, counseling and restitution payments.
"This is not a get out of jail free," said Carol O'Hare, executive director for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. "There's extensive monitoring. Literally, their entire life has to be laid open to the court: where they go, they're on GPS monitoring for that; they cannot use any substance, must disclose financials completely. The court knows where every dime goes."
Treatment courts also have proved to be more cost effective than traditional incarceration.
"We believe gambling courts are an important part of a comprehensive system of care for people with gambling problems," says Keith Whyte, the executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Gambling courts are a really important means for keeping folks who have committed nonviolent crimes out of jail; it's a really important [part] of helping them get treatment so they're able to sustain recovery and return to being productive, tax-paying members of society. The cost benefit is absolutely, massively tilted in the direction of these therapeutic courts."
While treatment courts for drug abuse are prevalent, Nevada is currently the only state with a diversion court focused on gambling, in part because too many people, from gambling operators to politicians, still believe problem gambling is a moral failing, not an addiction.
"That's the biggest dilemma in the last 20 years that I've been in this field, and it ties in with the stigma of being labeled a moral degenerate gambler," Moss says. "[Gambling disorder] is a disease, like alcohol or drugs. Some people can control it, some people can't."
In 2013, pathological gambling was reclassified as disordered gambling and included in the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a key reference guide for mental health professionals.
Greater understanding of the parallels between substance abuse and gambling disorder led to the reclassification, says Dr. Andrew Saxon, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
"There is a lot of overlap in the signs of symptoms of a substance-abuse disorder and a gambling disorder," Saxon explains. "To the extent that we know about the neurobiology, by looking at brain imaging, it's very similar. You've got similar circuits that are being activated."
Despite the evidence, society still has a tough time grasping that an addiction to gambling is anything other than a series of bad personal choices. According to a survey by the National Council on Problem Gambling, 52% of adults believe moral weakness is more likely the cause of gambling disorders. Advocates for problem gamblers say that notion has contributed to inadequate funding for problem gambling treatment and hindered efforts for the creation of more gambling treatment courts.
Moss, the daughter of a psychiatrist who worked in the problem gambling space, is hoping to change that. She has formed an advisory group of experts and is vigorously pushing for legislation to create a gambling treatment court in New Jersey. She has also engaged policy makers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. But for now, Nevada remains the only state with a treatment court dedicated to problem gambling.
The victims of crimes committed by problem gamblers, like Aaron and Rhonda Hawley, the owners of the Las Vegas plumbing company that Meador embezzled more than a half a million dollars from, understandably have grievances and struggle to accept that treatment courts, instead of incarceration, equal justice.
"Her going to prison wasn't going to change anything," Rhonda Hawley told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after Meador was released and accepted into the treatment court, "but it was the right thing to do."
Meador, out of respect for the victims, declined to comment for this story. She now works at the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and will likely never be able to pay her full restitution. She served approximately four years in prison before being accepted into the state's gambling treatment program, where for the past two years she has been required to maintain restitution payments to her victims, undergo addiction counseling and other stipulations mandated by Moss and the court.
In December, in Moss' last hearing before her retirement, Meador broke into tears.
"I just want to say thank you," Meador told Moss. "You have always treated us as people first, and that was huge. It was a long time coming getting to your courtroom, and I was nervous, but you eased those fears on the first day. And the commitment you've held us to, the accountability, what you've given us, the road to recovery, I'll always be grateful. Thank you for being that wonderful judge that didn't judge us."