Photo by Wes Dickinson, via Flickr

A reminder: Just because you can roll dice at a half-dozen Maryland casinos doesn’t mean you can’t be arrested and jailed for doing it at an underground gambling spot or on your own turf.

But this legislative session, Baltimore State Sen. Jill Carter and Montgomery County Del. David Moon hope to change that by removing incarceration from the equation for punishing street gambling.

SB 842, sponsored by Carter, seeks to change the punishment for illicit wagers—think sports betting with bookies, dice with neighbors and card games in underground casinos, or other spots not overseen or sanctioned by Maryland Gaming and Lottery. Moon has filed companion legislation, HB 113, in the House of Delegates.

“I think as a public policy, we have to make a decision that if we’re allowing gambling on so many levels, and if we’re looking at sports betting, then we need to address this aspect of the code that criminalizes petty gambling for everyday people,” Carter testified at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on Tuesday.

While gambling is obviously permitted at casinos, currently, to “bet, wager or gamble” outside of them is a misdemeanor punishable statewide by at least six months and up to two years in prison, plus a fine ranging from $200 to $1,000. The same goes, specifically, for “thimbles,” (like a shell game) “little joker” (who knows) and the popular “craps” (dice), as well as the broad category of “any other gaming device or fraudulent trick,” under Maryland criminal code.

Under state law, someone arrested for any of this in Baltimore City can be issued a citation by a police officer, though that can still allow for prison time.

Carter and Moon are looking to reduce these penalties now that the state has let large companies in to reap the benefits of legalized gambling, and is now considering moving ahead on sports betting. Their proposals would reclassify the misdemeanor crimes as a civil offense, punishable by a fine and no jail time. If approved, the max fine for illicit wagers of up to $100 would be $500, and the penalty limit for larger bets would be $1,000.

The legislation would also change punishments for bookies for setting odds, keeping tabs with customers, exchanging money, running a spot to place wagers and more. Currently, that’s all a misdemeanor punishable by six to 12 months in prison, plus a fine of up to $1,000. Under Carter and Moon’s proposal, it would remain a misdemeanor, but the max jail sentence would be cut to six months, while the fine limit would increase to $5,000.

At a hearing on his bill last week, Moon cited imbalances in Maryland’s gambling laws and the approaching advent of sports gambling in Maryland as reason to change the penalties. “I continue to think it is a little bit immoral for us to keep expanding gambling without addressing what criminal penalties we have left on the books,” he said.

He also cited disparate enforcement: “I’ve never heard of a single person being [arrested] for their $1 NCAA brackets, but you do see residents in urban areas brought up for doing practically the same thing, except with dice.”

Figures provided in a fiscal and policy note on Carter’s bill indicate there were 105 gambling violations filed in district courts around Maryland in fiscal 2018, and 32 violations filed in circuit courts. The analysis didn’t provide data on how many people were actually convicted or jailed, but it noted anyone with a sentence of at least 18 months is sent to a state correctional facility, where it costs Maryland an estimated $3,800 per month for every inmate. For local jails holding inmates with lesser sentences, it’s closer to $40 to $170 per day per inmate in recent years, the analysis said.

Gambling decriminalization legislation sponsored by Moon in 2016 passed the House, but never received a hearing in the Senate, and similar legislation floundered in committee in 2017.

The Montgomery County Democrat said last week that the measure is intended to reduce the effect that a conviction can have on someone’s livelihood. And he assured his colleagues multiple times that decriminalizing petty gambling is not the same as legalizing it statewide.

“All of these games would continue to be illegal,” he said. “They would just be subject to a fine or ticket instead of a criminal record, which has lasting effects on folks.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...