Debtors' Prison In Las Vegas

Opinion

   on January 04 2013 2:37 PM
Las Vegas
The casino industry is well-known for machinations such as pumping oxygen to keep gamblers awake, designing casinos without windows or clocks and offering patrons free drinks. Reuters

The recent arrest of retired NFL star Joey Porter in Bakersfield, Calif., spotlights the casino industry's disturbing partnership with law enforcement.  

Porter was arrested for an unpaid $70,000 gambling debt to the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, Nev.. This follows other high-profile instances where casinos have used the threat of imprisonment to force monetary payments, a stark contrast to the traditional American civil justice system.

Ostensibly, the bad check unit of Las Vegas’ Clark County District Attorney's Office functions as a collection agency for the casinos. The unit prosecutes gamblers who do not pay their markers, which are loans from the casinos in Vegas parlance, and they even charge a 10 percent commission on their collections.  

The law may strike one as unconstitutional, if not un-American at the very least, as it defies the American tradition of bankruptcy laws, rather than debtors’ prisons. But the Nevada State Supreme Court has upheld its validity, thus permitting casinos to push even further the acceptable lines of commercial behavior. 

The casino industry is well-known for machinations such as pumping oxygen to keep gamblers awake, designing casinos without windows or clocks and offering patrons free drinks. All of these are in the service of keeping gamblers playing and losing. But a partnership with local law enforcement, particularly when casinos are the ones encouraging excessive gambling, is a new low.

I happen to know a little bit about gambling debts and incarceration: I had a pathological gambling addiction and lost millions of dollars. I paid my debt in federal prison, and I didn't blame the casinos. It has been 10 years since my life was forever altered, however, and I have had time to reflect and reexamine how they facilitated.

Lately, the Department of Justice has been investigating casinos that are suspected of potentially violating money-laundering rules. So it is particularly ironic that casinos would have the imprimatur of law behind their collection efforts.

For far too long, casinos have operated under a shroud of mystery and have avoided both transparency and accountability, including through their financial reporting. As a successful federal whistleblower, I can predict with confidence that just as traditional financial institutions have come under increased scrutiny and legal attack for fraud, so too will casinos in the near future.

What is particularly egregious about the Vegas casinos’ abuse of the legal system in this instance, however, is that it utilizes public resources solely in the service of a private industry’s bottom line, something that we should all be cognizant of amid budget deficits. With an average annual housing cost of $20,000 per inmate in Nevada, the Clark County District Attorney's Office would have to be collecting over $200,000 for its 10 percent commission to exceed the costs and make sense financially. Therefore, it would be prudent for other law enforcement agencies to do the math, before they follow suit.

Joey Porter is not the first, and will not be the last, accomplished person to gamble away large sums of money. After a couple of days in a Bakersfield jail, he was released, because he was fortunate enough to be able to pay his debt. That will not be the case for the vast majority of people who get in over their heads.

These days in Sin City, the cards aren’t just figuratively stacked against you -- they literally are. And gamblers who take out markers best be careful, because their money might not be the only thing that stays in Vegas.   

Adam Resnick is an author and whistleblower.

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