Dr. Nate Link, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, was recently honored with the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ (ACJS) 2018 Donal MacNamara Award for his lead-authored article in Justice Quarterly, “Can General Strain Theory Help Us Understand Violent Behaviors Among People with Mental Illnesses?

Nathan Link
Dr. Nate Link, a Rutgers alumnus, began his academic career as an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden in 2017.

The ACJS publishes three different journals and, each year, one published article is chosen for the MacNamara Award for “Outstanding Journal Publication.” To be considered for this award, articles must present thoughtful analysis, deal with their subject in a novel manner, and constitute a meaningful addition to the literature. Dr. Link’s article, co-authored with Francis T. Cullen of the University of Cincinnati, Robert Agnew of Emory University, and Bruce Link of Columbia University, successfully ticked all of these boxes, and some others.

The article is scholarly and challenging to read, but the premise is simple enough: “Humans are subject to social forces that lead them to crime, and people with mental illnesses are humans.”

The tendency of humans toward violence is often studied through the lens of social forces, looking at the things that cause them to lash out. However, the lens through which violence among people with mental illnesses has historically been examined is their illness. The thinking has been that people with mental illnesses are violent because their illness makes them so. Dr. Link’s article shows that, though this is part of the story, traditional thinking overlooks an important contributing factor.

“General Strain Theory” (GST), a social psychological theory of crime developed by Robert Agnew, suggests that strain or stress in one’s life can result in criminal behavior. One of the key ideas is that people act out, sometimes violently, when confronted with stressful life situations, especially if acting out is seen to be a way out of the stressful situation.

Dr. Link’s article deals only with serious mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia, and it happens to be that people with serious mental disorders are far more vulnerable to many of these stresses and strains, such as sexual assault and victimization, than people without mental illnesses. These kinds of “criminogenic” factors, though considered in cases of violence among “healthy” people, are often ignored when trying to explain violence among people with mental illnesses. In a very real sense, people with mental illnesses become violent because they are subjected, on a greater scale, to conditions with the potential to cause violence in any human.

This argument has policy, as well as research implications. Dr. Link and his co-authors argue that the social forces and conditions surrounding people with mental illnesses must be taken into account, along with their illness, when research on violence is conducted. Only then do we get the full picture. With regard to policy, it is clear from their data and arguments that policy-makers should take note of the living conditions of people with mental illnesses, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because ameliorating some of the stresses to which they are currently subject will help reduce future violence.

Dr. Link was interested in concepts of justice from an early age, and his parents instilled in him the idea that what he did for a living should make a difference to the world. In concert with this came the influence of a neighbor, Dr. James Fyfe, an academic criminologist, who passed in 2005. From the age of six, Dr. Link was very close to Dr. Fyfe, and the two engaged in many conversations about criminology. Thus, his youth set him on a course for his current academic position.

Moving straight from his criminal justice bachelor’s degree at The College of New Jersey into the workforce, Dr. Link began working at a juvenile treatment center for troubled children from Philly. At that point he had no intention of pursuing any form of graduate education, and he remarks that graduate school and an interest in research, “kind of just happened to me.” As he worked at the treatment center and was told “this is good for the kids” he began asking “How do we know this is good? Are we tracking outcomes and seeing what parts of this program work and what doesn’t?” Though he had not previously been an enthusiastic student, these questions burned in his mind, and as enthusiasm for the subject grew, so did his interest in returning to school, eventually resulting in a master’s degree from Rutgers University and a PhD. from Temple University, all in the fields of criminal justice, social welfare, or public policy.

Dr. Link describes himself as an empiricist with a social justice orientation, and he is highly interested in research that can assist vulnerable and stigmatized groups. This led very naturally to an interest in studying people with mental illnesses, since they are a highly stigmatized group. It soon became clear to him that one of the ways to help this group was through research, and thus the seed for the article was planted.

Apart from that line of research, Dr. Link researches several aspects of incarceration, prisoner re-entry (the reintegration of former inmates into society), and both physical and mental health. The focus of his current interest is the issue of legal debt burdens among people in contact with the justice system. Defendants are saddled with numerous fines and fees upon arrest and conviction. Jails and prisons, including some in Pennsylvania, even charge inmates per day for their incarceration. By the time they are released, many have accrued substantial amounts of debt, often mounting to tens of thousands of dollars. Dr. Link’s current studies are examining who experiences these debts and how they manifest into further complications in the lives of former prisoners trying to navigate the difficult transition home.

Written by Victoria Wroblewski