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Birds of a Feather

In the slots debate, jailbirds back the Penguins

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In the 1990s, when New Orleans was debating whether to allow casino gambling, a pundit commented that since New Orleans already had organized crime — along with an abundance of prostitution, drug abuse, crooked cops, corrupt politicians and petty criminals of all sorts — it was particularly well suited to host legal gambling. Pittsburgh has a paucity of these … er, resources (in my opinion, though probably not the U.S. Attorney's). So the debate has mostly concerned whether a slots license should be given to Isle of Capri, a casino developer who has promised to build a new arena to keep the Penguins in town.

But what about crime? Is it possible that a slots parlor inside city limits will increase the number of pimps and hos in town? Will more muggers and boosters and mopes and on-the-take cops shortly be walking the streets of our fair city? Since this is my bailiwick, I'm going to venture a guess.

My guess is yes, but only a few more. Pittsburgh is never going to catch up to New Orleans. It's even possible that our indigenous population of lowlifes will just have to work a little harder.

Almost to a person, the people I've met who have engaged in these sorts of illegal activities tend to be attracted to "action." A place where people mindlessly stick money into slot machines meets their criteria for action. For that reason, any spike in crime can be expected to center around the casino itself. Squirrel Hill will remain unsullied, and forget about the suburbs. I mean that literally: Forget about them. They don't have a chip in this game.

There is another reason I think any increase in crime will be small. Though I've never been to a slots parlor and can't confirm this, they have a reputation of being senior-citizen magnets. This is not the portion of the population that is going to support a lot of criminal activity — except maybe for muggers, but I assume that the bus stops around the casino will be well lit.

Another question I am particularly well suited to answer is this: How do we in the criminal community feel about having legal gambling dens in our backyard?

As for me, I don't care one way or another: Like a majority of former prison inmates, I don't care what anyone does, as long as they aren't doing it to me. I don't see how this casino thing will directly affect me, unless of course it keeps the Penguins in town.

To get a somewhat broader view, I made a couple of phone calls. As a result of this very limited survey (I hate to call anyone whose phone might be tapped), I learned that most ex-cons are in favor of the new casino, even the ones — and maybe even especially the ones — who have been known to engage in illegal wagering themselves. It's a marketing thing. It's why Wendy's and McDonald's always build next to one another. The lottery hasn't done much to stop the illegal numbers business, except make people wonder why they put people in prison for being involved in it.

I have one disclaimer to make. I don't know how the "for amusement only" poker-machine operators feel about the new competition. The only person I know I can call for an opinion is back in prison.

The reasons most often given among my sample for favoring a new casino were: It will bring more action to town; it shows that Pittsburgh is coming up; and, at least somebody is doing something for a change.

The overwhelming choice for the new location was the Isle of Capri proposal for the lower Hill District. Station Square was viewed as too crowded already. It was feared that placing it on the North Shore, so near the stadiums, might impugn the integrity of the games played there — and make sports bettors nervous. The Hill was considered the safe bet, and it would also keep the Penguins in town.

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