Treating gambling addicts who commit crimes would be much cheaper than jailing them, and would reduce reoffending, says a New York judge who set up the world's only specialist Gambling Treatment Court.

Judge Mark Farrell, a speaker at an international gambling conference starting in Auckland today, says it costs US$7000 to US$10,000 ($8400 to $12,000) to put an offender through a year-long gambling treatment programme, compared with $97,000 to keep a prisoner for a year in a New Zealand jail.

More importantly, 90 per cent of the 92 people who have graduated from his gambling court have not reoffended. In New Zealand, 59 per cent of all released prisoners reoffend within two years.

Auckland psychologist Dr Sean Sullivan will make a case at the conference on Friday for adding gambling to the special Drug Courts being tried in Auckland and Waitakere.


"There are thousands of such courts in the world now so it's not as though New Zealand is going to find they don't work," he said. "But we might be right at the cutting edge now if we could have a gambling court."

Judge Farrell, a judge in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst in upstate New York, set up a specialist gambling court in 2001 after an upsurge of gambling-related petty thefts stemming from the opening of a casino at nearby Niagara Falls in 1996 - the year Auckland's SkyCity opened.

The most common gambling-related offence was shoplifting. The gambling court does not deal with the most serious offenders such as violent criminals, who are still jailed.

"I look at the person's background, I look at recidivistic behaviour, any factors such as diseases," the judge said.

Offenders identified as suitable for the court have to plead guilty and sign a contract agreeing to attend an individualised treatment programme.

"We give them the mental health treatment, we give them vocational training, we change their living environment if we have to in terms of their housing, we require them to have at least a high school education and help them to get educational advancement. So the programme is holistic," Judge Farrell said.

Amherst citizens set up a non-profit foundation which raises funds to pay for the treatment. In New Zealand, Dr Sullivan said the money could come from a levy already paid by the gambling industry.

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