EDITORIAL – A second look at changes to gambling laws

“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
– Andrew Jackson, quoting Napoleon Bonaparte

We cannot help but observe our government’s unusual proclivity for rushing ahead with ill-conceived or poorly drafted plans which demand reconsideration, retraction or substantive revision – all of which would have been avoided by judiciousness and careful deliberation in the first instance.

In a display of amateurish behavior, they approve projects, such as the Mental Health Facility, but then fail to bring them to fruition. They pass laws, such as Standards in Public Life and Data Protection laws, and then drag feet in implementation. They table flawed legislation, including the Non-Profit Organisations Law, which must almost immediately be amended to resolve issues that should have been avoided.

Late last week, Attorney General Samuel Bulgin announced that government was calling “time out” on proposed amendments which would have drastically increased penalties for a wide variety of gambling-related crimes.

Mr. Bulgin pointed out that current prohibitions have not been updated in more than 50 years. In a news release, government asserts that “the current penalties are woefully inadequate and fail to reflect the present ramifications of illegal gambling.”

Certainly, it is worthwhile to take a second look at any law approaching an age at which many people would be thinking of retirement. But before they started tinkering, officials should have carefully considered the real-world ramifications of their actions.

As this board has noted, the recently proposed amendments were far more than a “refresh” of existing legislation. They would have exponentially increased the penalties for illegal gambling, targeting with particular gusto the popular underground lottery games known as “numbers.”

Playing the numbers is, of course, illegal. At the same time, it must be recognized that many otherwise law-abiding members of our community routinely play the small-stakes game – with no obvious negative societal or personal consequences.

Under current law, being found guilty of playing a lottery or being found in a gaming house is punishable by a $10 fine and two months’ imprisonment. Under the Gambling (Amendment) Bill 2018, that same violation could yield a $2,500 fine and six months in prison.

Buying or selling lottery tickets or assembling for lottery results would be punished by up to a $5,000 fine and a year in prison. Using premises for gambling, publishing lottery numbers or handling money resulting from gambling activities – up to a $10,000 fine and three years in prison. Keeping a gaming house, conducting a lottery or participating in a lottery – $20,000 and three years in prison.

Such a severe ratcheting up of penalties for gambling-related statutes would more than “up the ante” – it would change the game, entirely. In our view, it would lead to one of two possible outcomes (both of which are contrary to the public interest):

First, police could divert limited resources to enforce the new rules consistently and uniformly – inflicting potentially life-altering fines on otherwise law-abiding citizens from every segment of our society and stuffing Her Majesty’s already-crowded jails and prisons with “offenders” who pose little threat to the public order; or

Second, police could continue with only occasional or inconsistent enforcement of the new law, resulting in a perception of selective enforcement – always troublesome in a free and open society.