Carrying the Costs

Nathan Link turned youthful misdeeds into a lifetime of seeking criminal justice. His latest research project funded by a $1.5 million grant will study the impact of criminal fees and fines.

“Financial justice goes hand-in-hand with social and racial justice. This is an issue that has long needed to be studied.”
Antonio D. Tillis, Chancellor Rutgers University–Camden

Like many teenagers, Nathan Link recalled, he and his friends got into their share of trouble.

Growing up in a privileged town, the Rutgers University–Camden researcher said run-ins with the law were more likely to result in referrals for therapists or counselors rather than meetings with judges and jail time. Nonetheless, watching how those situations were handled differently for him and some of his friends of color was just enough “to get the gears turning,” said Link, an assistant professor of criminal justice.

By the time that Link was 18 years old, his misbehaving days were a thing of the past. However, his interest in the criminal justice system was just getting started. He explored these issues further as a criminology major at The College of New Jersey. Upon graduating, Link “fell into social work” working at a Philadelphia-area treatment facility for juveniles from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The experience made me realize that I could focus on social work as a career,” he told Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway during an episode of “Faces and Voices of Rutgers,” Holloway’s series of conversations with members of the university community. “I saw that it was a way I could think about human behavior and criminal justice from a different angle.”

Link became increasingly focused on research and delved into policy issues in the Eagleton Institute of Politics, while earning a master of social work degree at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. He saw that many nonprofits and social services agencies were underfunded and didn’t have the time to conduct proper evaluations of the programs. The gears kept turning.

“I just had these burning questions, ‘What works? Does this program work? Should we be spending time and resources in this way,’” he said.

In short, Link said that he became motivated to do research that can improve people’s lives. This was especially true of those who come in contact with the juvenile justice system. He thought, “How can we not disfigure their lives more?”

Link and Jordan Hyatt, a criminology professor at Drexel University, put such questions to the test in a groundbreaking new research project, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from Arnold Ventures and $45,000 from the City of Philadelphia.

The rigorous study will address how the financial hurdles stemming from criminal fees and debts benefits the lives of individuals being processed through a key criminal diversion program in Philadelphia. The program works by enabling individuals who are able to complete the program successfully, including paying associated fees, to have their charges expunged. 

“As a result, the program is intended to reduce the stigma and other ways that a criminal record can disfigure someone’s life,” said Link, the co-principal investigator on the project.

Rutgers University–Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis applauded the project for addressing an issue that has far-reaching societal implications. “Financial justice goes hand-in-hand with social and racial justice,” Chancellor Tillis said. “This is an issue that has long needed to be studied.”

Link explained that court fees pose a significant hurdle for many people; they struggle to complete the program and therefore do not reap the benefits. “They will continue to have their arrests and charges on their criminal record,” he said. “This can affect a range of future outcomes, including job prospects and the ability to support a family.”

The main focus of the study will thus examine how criminal fees impact an individual’s chances of completing the diversion program, gaining employment and reducing recidivism—meaning people are less likely to commit additional crimes—among other measures. Additional analysis will further break down these findings along racial and other demographics. Other elements of the project will examine how court fees influence emerging adult populations and whether they have disparate impacts across neighborhoods.

Link and Hyatt, the principal investigator, are now seeking to work with policymakers and legislators in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Their ultimate goal is to create a strong evidence base for reform efforts in this realm. “Our hope is that this study will inform policy on a state as well as national level,” Link said. “We have the ability to produce very strong findings that push the needle forward on some of these social and racial justice issues.”

Link added that, although the ultimate purpose of “the dream project” is to influence policy, in a very real way, they will already be impacting people’s lives. “This grant will address the financial hurdles for many people in Philadelphia who may not have much money,” he said. “That alone makes this project impactful in a way that my past work hasn’t.”

Link now poignantly plays an integral role in shedding light on such realities of criminal justice just as he once discovered on his own. Sit in on his engaged civic learning course, “Mass Incarceration, Reentry and Injustice,” and you will hear discussions on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, as well as innovative ideas for reform strategies. As he told President Holloway, some of his students are “shocked” to hear about the realities facing those trying to reintegrate into society, while other students may have personally known someone who experienced these harsh realities. “But they are equally motivated; there is a fire behind some of these students,” he said.

It's a fire that Link understands full well. And it’s one that his students may, in turn, pass on to others some day.

Watch Nathan Link sit down with Rutgers President, Jonathan Holloway, on Faces & Voices of Rutgers.