New Jersey for years has had a program in place that can keep nonviolent drug-crime offenders out of prison and instead on a path of rehabilitation for their substance use disorder.

Some New Jersey lawmakers, along with advocates, are wondering why the same can't be done for individuals who commit crimes because of their gambling addictions.

"Many don't even have parking tickets, but they get involved in gambling and then gambling just takes off," said George Mladenetz, a former member of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. "For an individual to go into prison and not get any help and then come back out, chances are they're just going to repeat the same cycle they're involved in."

Mladenetz, of Hamilton, is one of the folks behind the creation of the New Jersey Gambling Court Initiative, a group that's pushing for a diversion court pilot program in the Garden State that would provide treatment and support for individuals with gambling disorders who've committed crimes to further their addiction.

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The only active gambling court in the U.S. is in Nevada, established in 2018. Now-retired Judge Cheryl Moss, who was the first to run the court and did so for two years, said New Jersey is a good fit because a higher-than-average problem-gambling rate and its involvement with sports betting and internet gaming.

She noted the Nevada program has been "highly selective" — fewer than a dozen individuals have been deemed eligible for diversion so far.

"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card," Moss said. "People have to really have a severe gambling disorder to get treatment, as long as they're not violent criminals."

A bill introduced in May by Assembly Democrats Ralph Caputo, Dan Benson and Anthony Verrelli would establish gambling courts as a test run in the northern, central and southern portions of the state. Anyone deemed eligible for the diversion program would be subject to regular progress reports related to treatment, and would have to pay restitution to their victim(s).

“Often, gambling addictions cause emotional and financial strain on families who simply want to help. These personal issues are often difficult for many to discuss with loved ones and can go ignored. This bill will give those in need an important resource to help overcome their tribulations," the lawmakers said.

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