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Casinos and Crime

Posted by jkarmel on June 2, 2010

[Originally published on November 3, 2008]

What’s wrong with this picture?

If nothing else, the Maryland referendum battle has brought forth some interesting ideas and popular notions about casino gaming. One of the most prominent is the idea oft-repeated by slots opponents that casinos lead to crime. An anti-slots ad in an Ocean City, MD newspaper highlighted a supposed connection between casinos and crime in West Virginia and Mississippi. Another opposition ad pointed out that “In the first three years of gambling in Atlantic City, New Jersey went from 50th in nation in per capita crime to 1st in the nation” – a dubious stat, lacking context and sufficient analysis.

There really is very little evidence to support this idea, and in fact, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (1999) reported no direct connection between the two. Sure, petty crimes increase whenever you have large gatherings of people such as around stadiums, but the idea that bringing a casino into your community will inevitably lead to a crime wave just doesn’t hold up to research-based scrutiny.

So, why is this such a widely-held belief? I speculate that it may have something to do with the widely-held perceptions of the Atlantic City experience of the 1980s, when the city quadrupled its number of visitors within 3 years of Resorts’ opening and was completely unprepared for the onslaught. So AC crime spiked as the national spotlight turned to the city when it came to casino culture – before Las Vegas took off after the Mirage opened in 1989 and casinos sprouted all over the nation in the 1990s. As well, the crack epidemic hit & by the end of the 1980s AC had developed a nasty reputation as a bi-polar sort of place with glitzy casinos for tourists & desolate crime-ridden poverty for the locals.

The intense media focus on AC in the late 1970s & 1980s (its eastern monopoly years) planted a popular attitude that hasn’t faded much, despite the reality of AC’s progress in the 1990s and 2000s.

So, the connection took hold in the popular milieu– at least to many on the east coast: casinos = crime. Of course, this perception missed the reality that pre-casino AC was much worse in the 1970s. Yet, while crime spiked in Atlantic City (as it did in cities across the country), it actually went down in Atlantic County measured proportionately according to population, where most of the casino employees lived and which experienced a terrific casino-fueled boom from 1978 to 1990.

Yet, still…the perception holds and is exploited by gaming forces…alas…in politics, in life, perception is reality.

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