EDITORIAL – Examining the Gambling Law: By the ‘numbers’

With our lockups bursting at the seams and court dockets crammed to the point of paralysis, the stated intention of lawmakers to toughen penalties for illegal (yet ubiquitous) gambling calls for careful scrutiny.

Far more than “doubling down” on existing legislation, the proposal under consideration would increase exponentially punishments, particularly targeting popular underground lottery games known as “numbers.”

If the new legislation is passed and then – as all laws should be – enforced uniformly and universally, it would test the capacity of Cayman Islands police and put further strain on judicial and correctional facilities. In the absence of rigorous and consistent enforcement, the new gambling penalties would at least appear to constitute little more than the opportunity for selective prosecutions – a most dangerous temptation in any society.

In this editorial we are limiting ourselves to the observation that there is a distinction between tough-on-crime policies and disproportionate, even extortionate, fines and penalties.

Here’s what the proposed Gambling (Amendment) Bill 2018 would do:

  • For playing a lottery or being found in a gaming house – increase the current $10 fine and two months’ imprisonment to a $2,500 fine and six months in prison.
  • For buying or selling lottery tickets, or assembling for lottery results – increase the current $40 fine and two months’ imprisonment to a $5,000 fine and a year in prison.
  • For using premises for gambling, publishing lottery numbers or handling money resulting from gambling activities – increase the current $400 fine and one year imprisonment to a $10,000 fine and three years in prison.
  • For keeping a gaming house, conducting a lottery or participating in a lottery – increase the current $100 fine and six months’ imprisonment to a $20,000 fine and three years in prison.

Do these punishments meet the test of proportionality, or even rationality, relative to other crimes?

According to a government statement, “Police Intelligence reports between 2015 and 2018 show that there has been a steady increase in the number of incidents involving persons engaged in different forms of illegal gambling activities. This includes what is colloquially referred to as “numbers” or “lottery.”

“These statistics also suggest a strong connection between certain crimes and gambling activities. This is evidenced by the number of reported robberies including firearm-related robberies, assaults and other violent crimes that have been proven to be gambling related.”

Let’s pause for a re-read of the previous paragraph. It includes such phraseology as “strong connection” and cites “a number of reported robberies … that have been proven to be gambling related.”

What is the evidence for such assertions? Whenever causality is stated or implied, careful thinkers always seek to examine the underlying evidence. In this case, we doubt that any such evidence exists – certainly not to the extent that it would justify such a draconian increase in the penalties that are being proposed.

As former MLA Osbourne Bodden observes in a letter to the editor published on the right side of this page, “the numbers game has been entrenched in these islands for many years now,” with participants from nearly all walks of life.

Do officials really intend to implement life-altering punishments on thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens (yes, they include grandmothers, churchgoers and perhaps even some law enforcement officers) who spend a few dollars on lottery tickets in hopes of sudden good fortune?

If we may ask a humble, but simple, question: Why?

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