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(Photo: SugarHouse Casino)

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

• July 29, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: SugarHouse Casino)

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.

In September 2010, Philadelphia became the largest city in the U.S. to boast a casino. On the day SugarHouse Casino opened, as USA Today reported at the time, the crowds of excited new patrons were also joined by a group of protesters, calling themselves Casino-Free Philadelphia. Among other complaints about the city’s skewed priorities for infrastructure development, the anti-casino group maintained that when casinos come to town, crime follows.

The Casino-Free Philadelphia website cites an impressive array of research about casinos elsewhere that seem to bolster that argument. The group’s members believe that building more casinos encourages gambling addictions, and that those addicts will often steal and embezzle to support their habit. Many people also believe that casinos, by the very nature of what they are and the clientele they attract, will become hotspots of all types of crimes—like drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, organized crime, and physical violence.

But a new study that specifically analyzed the impact of SugarHouse on surrounding neighborhoods in Philadelphia shows that these fears have not come to pass. The criminologists Lallen T. Johnson at Drexel University and Jerry H. Ratcliffe at Temple University published their article in Security Journal last month. Johnson and Ratcliffe found that, on the neighborhood level, the casino “had no significant effect on violent street felonies, vehicle crime, drug crime or residential burglary in the surrounding community.”

Casino-Free Philadelphia members believe that building more casinos encourages gambling addictions, and that those addicts will often steal and embezzle to support their habit.

In fact, drug crimes and residential burglary actually decreased in that neighborhood—which the authors attribute to an increased police patrol around the area. Vehicle crime did increase in the next neighborhood over, though, suggesting that it may have been displaced rather than reduced. Regardless, it seems that an uptick in “alcohol violations or kids being left in cars while their parents gamble,” which the group protesting the casino warned against, has not materialized in the years since SugarHouse opened.

Casinos’ impact on crime has always been a hotly debated topic. One of the first and most widely cited studies on the issue was by Jay Albanese, a criminologist from Niagara University, in 1985. He looked at the crime data in Atlantic City to try to see how casinos there had changed the area’s rates of murder, rape, robbery, assault, and theft. At first, he did see an increase in these, suggesting a correlation between casinos and crime.

But then, when he controlled for the population increase over that time period, he saw that the correlation was “negligible.” The population was actually growing faster than the crime rates were rising, so visitors to Atlantic City were, statistically, at less risk of being victimized than they had been in the past. So, in spite of people’s instinctual fears, he wrote, “the link between casino gambling and crime has yet to be conclusively established.” As he later explained in his testimony at a hearing about a proposed new casino in Mississippi, “crime volume” does not equal “crime rate,” an important distinction (PDF).

Different methodology will produce different results—an obvious point, but one that is easy to forget. For instance, Johnson and Ratcliffe explain in their article, previous studies have looked at crime at the city-wide and county-wide level; theirs is the first to zero in on individual neighborhoods. Cities and counties can have changes in crime volume or crime rates for any number of reasons; how can they be attributed to a new casino in one part of town? (Research into the non-crime-related but “socially undesirable” effects of gambling addictions—like bankruptcy, divorce, and suicide rates—suffers from this same problem.)

Other studies of other cities have also failed to distinguish crime associated with casinos from the crime associated with the surrounding overall tourism industry. But here, at least, the Philadelphia researchers were in luck:

Urban casino research to date has overwhelmingly focused on cities historically known for their expansive gambling/entertainment districts. Philadelphia has no such district with legal gambling, which allows this research to avoid the need to theoretically or empirically disentangle the effect of tourism from any crime-generating effects of the casino.

For this reason, too, we shouldn’t generalize about the impact of casinos on crime from this particular case study, since every community has different factors at play. This is true for other aspects of evaluation, too. Pacific Standard has also recently covered a similarly protracted debate about the economic impact of new casinos; yes, casinos in Las Vegas spur growth, but small towns elsewhere can’t necessarily expect the same levels of success. If a smaller town can’t attract tourists from other areas, then new casinos will just give the current residents a new place to spend their money, with no net benefit to the community.

Despite the difficulty of measuring their impact, the debate over new casinos will surely continue, and each side of the debate will cite the research that suits its argument best. Just two weeks ago, a letter to the editor in the Daily Gazette about plans for a new casino outside Albany, New York, cited a study that found an eight percent difference in crime between cities with casino gambling and those without.

The author can’t claim to be unbiased. Her viewpoint is evident when she writes, citing no evidence, that “Taxpayers will pay more for undercover and other vice detectives to monitor such casino-associated entertainment as escort services, prostitution and (God forbid) the interstate transport of underage sex workers.” So the debate continues.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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