Problem Gambling and Criminal Activity: Is There an Association?

handcuffs on table next to playing cards and poker chips

If you have a gambling problem, it sometimes feels like your life is coming apart at the seams. Have you ever been tempted to do something illegal? How far would you go to finance your habit or pay off gambling debts? Is there a path from problem gambling to crime?

Even if you think you’ll never break the law, sometimes desperation leads people down a dangerous path. Unfortunately, while not every problem gambler engages in criminal activity, there are statistical links between problem gambling and crime — and research suggests that spending time behind bars can worsen a gambling problem.

Does Gambling Increase the Likelihood of Crime?

Many reputable psychological and criminal studies organizations have examined the links between problem gambling and crime, such as the University of Georgia Department of Psychology, the United States Department of Defense, and the internationally renowned Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling. These institutions and research bodies, among many others, agree that, in general, the more the severity of a gambling problem increases, the more likely someone is to commit a crime. (This also increases the likelihood that problem gambling leads to legal trouble. Check out the most common legal troubles problem gamblers encounter.)

Fast Facts

  • In a study by the University of Georgia, more than 60% of problem gamblers report committing crimes directly related to gambling. 
  • During the same study, between 80% and 90% of Gamblers Anonymous attendees admitted to committing illegal acts to get more money for gambling.
  • Even when problem gamblers make up less than 10% of a prison’s population, research indicates they committed up to 20% of the total number of crimes. 
  • During a study following drug court clients in Nevada, problem gamblers were on average arrested seven times more often than non-gamblers.

Types of Crimes Associated with Gambling

According to a 2020 study by the Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling, problem gamblers are statistically more likely to commit crimes such as

  • Stealing cash, valuables, or property belonging to a friend or family member
  • Writing bad checks
  • Embezzlement
  • Stealing from their workplace

It may seem obvious that someone in deep financial trouble might resort to stealing money or writing bad checks. However, theft and fraud are far from the only connections between problem gambling and crime.

Other common crimes associated with gambling might not be the ones you initially imagined. A Department of Defense study of Nevada arrestees found that self-admitted problem gamblers were much more likely to have sold drugs than other arrestees. They were also more likely to have abused illegal substances, which could be related to the need to cope with high-stress situations related to gambling or attempted self-medication due to guilt and shame.

Other links between problem gambling and crime involve crimes such as:

  • Assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Child neglect 

Prison and Gambling

Another link between problem gambling and crime happens at the institutional level — in jails themselves. A considerable percentage of both male and female prisoners identified themselves as problem gamblers — an average of 30% across multiple studies, which is over ten times more than the national average of around 2.6%. Even though there have been connections between prison and problem gambling, there is little to no treatment available in prison, creating a vicious cycle. Without help for gamblers who have a problem, the likelihood of reoffense is significantly higher. According to the previously mentioned 2020 study from the Commission,

“The literature reviewed suggest(s)… a correlation between the severity of an individual’s gambling disorder and a greater likelihood of offending and reoffending.”

While there is limited research into prison-specific problem gambling treatment programs, there have been a few promising studies that indicate treatment may reduce the rate of repeat offenders.

Getting Help Is Still Possible

Problem gambling and crime don’t always go hand in hand — but the numbers don’t lie. If you’re in a difficult financial situation because of problem gambling, you’re more likely to commit many different types of crimes, even ones you might not have initially thought would be related to gambling at all. If you can’t stop spinning the wheel, betting at the racetrack, or engaging in excessive sports betting or app-based gambling, get help now and call 1-800-GAMBLER. Our helpline operates 24/7 and is completely confidential.


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