Dr. Brandon W. Mathews is a passionate criminal justice professional with expertise in the development and implementation of innovative evidence-based correctional treatment and supervision programs.

A recent speaker at Point of Departure, Brandon is an active researcher with the Alliance for Criminal Justice Innovation, publishing on topics like recidivism reduction, structured decision-making, risk assessment, and criminal justice education.

Here we talk about growing up in a household of civil servants, staying optimistic in the face of staggering odds, and the right way to motivate people.

What sparked your interest in sociology?

My dad was a probation officer when I was growing up and my mom was a teacher. I remember him coming home—gun on, badge on—placing his stuff on the counter and talking about work. That stuck with me. He became a social worker later in my life and he does that to this day. As I got older, I realized everybody in my family was involved in some shape or form in the correctional system: probation officers, police officers, social workers.

Sounds like a veritable family legacy.

Yeah. Beyond that, my uncle just retired from the Los Angeles Probation Department after thirty years. My stepfather is a cop. If we go down the line it’s just teachers and POs and more teachers and cops. Everyone is highly educated, which is abnormal given the backgrounds they came up in, but it’s just kind of what we do as a family.

So are family reunions all business?

They tend to be hot ideological discussions about what things should and shouldn’t be happening. It’s always a good time.

Do you see overlap in the worlds of teaching and the criminal justice system?

Some of the skills are similar, even if they may not seem like it on the surface. Teaching is about guidance, socialization, and growing as people—and so is the criminal justice system. Teachers want to help and facilitate people’s growth, and so do those working in the criminal justice field, especially as things have changed over the years.

What a typical day is like for you?

I make decisions about whether or not to release people from prisons on a daily basis. A typical day could consist of 10 to to 25 hearings. A lot of my time is spent having conversations with justice-involved individuals, asking questions like: “Why are you here?” “What have you done since you’ve been incarcerated?” “How have you grown?” “What insight do you have about what brought you here?” “What treatment have you completed?” “What skills have you acquired so that you can financially support yourself when you get out of here?” I have those conversations all day, every day. Then I have to make decisions about someone’s level of risk and if they are ready to be back in the community, given their answers.

That is a big responsibility.

It is a huge responsibility. When things go wrong, it’s always the decision-maker that gets scrutinized. But the reality is that we are living in a world where, at the state-level, about 50% of folks will be unsuccessful when they exit prison. At the federal level it is about 67%. If that’s the baseline and you can’t really get much worse than that.

Is it hard to stay optimistic in your role or do you see things improving?

It’s tough. There are days that are just rough, where you are talking to folks who are not doing well. They lack insight into what brought them where they are, which is an indication that it is likely they are going to cycle themselves back through again. They don’t change the way they view the world and view their position. But occasionally you come across a nugget where someone has made a 180-degree turn and it was all intrinsic—nobody made them do it. Those are the ones that keep you optimistic that change is possible.

Do you have a TED talk that inspires you?

So my academic background is management and organizational development, I just happen to apply that stuff in the criminal justice space. Daniel Pink’s talk, “The puzzle of motivation” is one of my favorites of all time. It applies everywhere, not just in industry but in education, criminal justice, social work, public administration, everywhere. I use principles of his talk and his book to really mentor the folks that work for me.  
  I don’t have any people working under me right now, but when I did, I used this talk to teach them about motivation. If you can pass Daniel’s lessons on to the folks working under you, you get more out of them then you will by trying to use contingency based management. So for those reasons, his talk is probably my all-time favorite.