Social Scientist to Brief New Jersey Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Criminal Fines, Fees, and Asset Forfeiture

By Tom McLaughlin

Just a few years ago, Nate Link recalls, he was writing his doctoral dissertation on the debt burdens imposed on incarcerated individuals stemming from fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions.

Link notes how monetary sanctions push formerly incarcerated individuals and their families into poverty during a time when they can least afford it

He saw time and again how these financial obligations could exacerbate a parolee’s transition from incarceration to home. Still, he says, not many people were talking about it.

“This problem plagues criminal justice systems across the United States,” says the assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University–Camden. “These sanctions further push people and their families into poverty during a time when they can least afford it, and there’s evidence that having the debt is stressful and worsens mental health problems. There are also serious legal consequences for falling behind on payments and, in some places, you lose the right to vote or your driver’s license.”

Times have changed, as the Rutgers University–Camden expert has now been asked to brief the New Jersey Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21, on the topic of criminal fines, fees, and asset forfeiture, and how these impact people trying to reintegrate after incarceration. All advisory committee meetings are open for public attendance via conference call or in person, as applicable. For more information, visit the commission’s website.

Link is one of three experts on the national overview panel and his role, as the lone academic, is to review the social science in this area.

“It’s a real honor to be asked to participate on this panel, especially as the only social scientist,” says Link, who will join two attorneys specializing in policy and criminal justice reform. “To take on that role is very exciting for a person like me who’s interested in developing research findings that can improve policy and ultimately the lives of people in contact with the justice system.”

Each of the panelists will talk for ten minutes and then field questions in an hour-long Q&A session. The commission’s ultimate goal is to submit a report on the nature of the problem and potential solutions to state leaders.

Rutgers–Camden researcher believes that, more than ever, the time is ripe for criminal justice reform.

“As a result, I think it’s possible this could have a real impact on state-level criminal justice reform,” says Link.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher says that it is especially important for policymakers to hear the social science behind the issues because “sound empirical research is the backbone of good policy and legal reform.” Without the social science, he says, policymakers wouldn’t even fully understand the nature of the problem and, therefore, not be in the position to know what to change.

He likens the scenario to mechanics trying to repair cars with engine problems. Before they start swapping out parts and fixing things, they should have a good understanding of what’s wrong with the engine in the first place.

“So for this panel, I’m mostly trying to describe what’s happening inside the engine,” he says.

Link hopes the panel will focus in part on the fact that many public agencies can be just as zealous in their application of financial sanctions as profitmaking companies – notably bail bond companies, private probation, private prisons, and private institutional health care services – that often dominate the discussion.

“Some public agencies charge fees in the same way as private agencies and can be just as punitive in the event of failure to pay,” says Link. “If we want to address the problem on a large scale, we need to focus more on public agencies.”

Link also hopes that attention is given to the racial disparities found within incarcerated populations, a problem that is especially pronounced in New Jersey.

“We need to talk more about race and how the government may be exacerbating wealth inequality for historically disadvantaged groups,” he says.

Link believes that, more than ever, the time is ripe for criminal justice reform. There is “energy in this area,” he says, noting that calls for action are growing louder, with New Jersey at the forefront of the issue.

“We have Gov. Murphy, who’s already signed some financial sanctions reforms into law, and we have a state Supreme Court that realizes the harms and injustices associated with fines and fees,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if New Jersey leads the way in terms of reform in the next few years.”

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