Most Americans gamble. More than 80% of Americans have gambled at least once in their lifetimes, and 60% have gambled in the past year (National Council on Problem Gambling, 2014). Casino gambling is legal in many parts of the country, and state lotteries throughout the nation add billions of dollars every year to state revenues. Legalized gambling is a major American growth industry.

Although legal gambling is very common, illegal gambling has far from disappeared.

In the victimless-crime literature, illegal gambling, just like drug use and prostitution, is considered a consensual transaction and a plaintiffless crime (Wolfe and Owens, 2009).

The players are willing participants who generally do not notify the police that a crime has been committed. The police must therefore initiate any enforcement activity; if and when they do so, they in effect act as the complainant on behalf of the community. By contrast, enforcement activity for other crimes, such as burglaries or muggings, usually occurs in response to citizens’ (victims and witnesses) complaints.

Historically, the prohibition and regulation of gambling in the United States was originally the function of the individual states, not the federal government. Federal involvement with gambling began in the late nineteenth century, when Congress put an end to the operation of corrupt lotteries by denying them mailing privileges and the ability to transact business across state lines. The next significant federal action dealing with gambling occurred in 1949, when Congress enacted legislation to eliminate the gambling ships that had been operating off the coast of California. Other actions dealt with the interstate transportation and transmission of wagering information and gambling paraphernalia. The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 further extended jurisdiction over interstate gambling and made it a federal offense to operate certain illegal gambling businesses (Pierce and Miller, 2004). Congress also has affected gambling activities through the exercise of its taxing powers by levying excise and occupational taxes on gambling operations, and a stamp tax on gambling devices, and by subjecting gambling winnings to the federal income tax (Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, 1976).

Local police departments have the primary responsibility for gambling enforcement, although the role of state-level agencies is growing. The Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling (1976:44-46) identified a number of control techniques used by law enforcement agencies. The commission noted that the most frequent source of gambling arrests is the direct observation of illegal gambling activity. Such arrests are primarily “nonserious,” involving individual street players or low-level employees of gambling organizations. Arrests at higher levels—for example, large bookmakers or numbers offices—are rarely, if ever, made in this manner. They require investigation leading to a probable cause for search and arrest warrants. The use of informants in gambling control is widespread. Most police departments rely on this technique, as well as on undercover investigators who can often accumulate evidence against individuals and on operations by placing bets.

In recent years, the use of electronic surveillance, authorized by Congress in 1968 under Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, became particularly widespread in the control of illegal gambling (Norris and Wilson, 2007). Electronic surveillance is best suited for the use of gambling investigation because of the dependence of gambling operations on telephones (smartphones and landlines). One of the devices that is used is the pen register, which records phone numbers dialed from a particular phone. By attaching a pen register to the telephone line of a gambling location, police can often identify additional locations and individuals involved in illegal gambling operations. Although these and other efforts to control illegal gambling continue, arrests for gambling have declined dramatically in recent decades, with only 4,825 in 2015 compared to 123,000 in 1960 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016).

The decline in gambling arrests is not easy to explain but probably reflects recognition that so much gambling is now legal that it makes little sense to arrest people for illegal gambling. In any event, the criminal law historically has been ineffective in controlling and preventing people from engaging in illegal gambling. The parties involved in illegal gambling do not complain about it, and a typical gambling transaction is easily, rapidly, and privately consummated. Aside from the difficulties of detection, the criminal sanction for illegal gambling exerts little deterrent force. Generally, the penalties for those who are convicted tend to be light. Public opinion does not consider gambling as particularly wrongful, a sentiment both affected by and reflected in the lenience with which gambling offenders are treated.

Historically, illegal gambling has been a major source of revenue to organized crime (Wolfe and Owens, 2009), and gambling laws were seen as necessary to combat organized crime (Sheley, 1985). In most urban areas, bookmakers associated with crime syndicates specialize in bets on horseracing, professional football and basketball, boxing, hockey, and baseball. Increasingly, they are also involved in college football and basketball. Syndicates also run “numbers games,” which involve placing a bet on the possible occurrence of certain numbers, such as the last three digits of the U.S. Treasury balance. A complicated hierarchical organization is required to distribute the forms and to collect and pay off bets. Organized-crime syndicates employ “writers,” “runners,” or “sellers,” terms to indicate the persons who accept numbers bets directly from bettors. Bets collected by them are given to a “pickup man,” who forwards them to the next level in the hierarchy, the “bank.” In larger operations, bets may be carried from the pickup man to another intermediary, the controller (Pierce and Miller, 2004).

We noted earlier that the war against illegal drugs historically has generated police corruption, with police taking bribes to look the other way. The same problem is true of laws against gambling. Few police officers are willing to accept bribes from murderers, burglars, or other criminals whose acts are blatantly harmful and have identifiable victims. However, many police officers tend to feel that gambling is not particularly serious and that, in any case, it is impossible to eradicate. Hence, organized crime is often readily able to buy police protection for its activities. The 1972 Knapp Commission found corruption in the New York Police Department to be “at its most sophisticated among plainclothesmen assigned to enforce gambling laws” (Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, 1976:40). Participation in organized payoffs—a “pad”—netted individual New York plainclothes officers $300 to $1,500 a month. In return for protection, gambling establishments paid as much as $3,500 a month. Similarly, it was found that in Philadelphia, police throughout the city accept protection money from gamblers. It should be noted, however, that police corruption exists not only in gambling enforcement but in other areas as well (Punch, 2009). Investigations have also uncovered misconduct related to the enforcement of narcotics, prostitution, liquor establishments, construction-site regulations, and traffic (Chambliss, 1978). These forms of police corruption are largely an urban problem and not limited to the United States (Klockars et al., 2004).

One response to the difficulty and wastefulness in trying to enforce laws against gambling is to remove completely the criminal label. As the Knapp Commission recommended,

“The criminal law against gambling should be repealed. To the extent that the legislature deems that some control over gambling is appropriate, such regulation should be by civil rather than criminal process. The police should in any event be relieved from any responsibility for the enforcement of gambling laws or regulations” (Wynn and Goldman, 1974:67). Although, as we noted earlier, arrests for illegal gambling have dropped dramatically, the question of the decriminalization of gambling remains a controversial issue. One of the concerns fueling this controversy is the estimate that several million Americans are problem or pathological gamblers (National Council on Problem Gambling, 2014).

Young people may be at special risk for gambling problems. For those under 21, estimates go as high as 15% with serious gambling problems. According to a study by the International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill University, more than half of Canadian adolescents are recreational gamblers, 10 to 15 per cent are at risk of developing a severe problem, and 4% to 6% are considered pathological gamblers. The McGill study also found young Canadians aged 18 to 24 are two to four times more likely to develop a problem with gambling than the general adult population (Schmidt, 2003).

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