When the MacArthur Foundation called Lisa Daugaard to tell her she’d been selected for a prestigious fellowship, she didn’t answer.

Daugaard thought the calls were coming from a telemarketer, and she had a lot on her mind. Police were increasingly referring people accused of low-level crimes to Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, so they could connect with services instead of being sent to jail. But Daugaard worried funding for the program wasn’t keeping up.

“I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. This may be just too difficult,'” Daugaard said. So when she finally answered a call from the foundation a few weeks ago and learned it was recognizing her police-reform efforts, she said it felt “providential.”

“It renewed my hope that people support this shift and that they want to see a new set of solutions,” she said. “It made it a lot easier to get up the next day.”

Daugaard, 53, is one of 26 fellows selected this year by the MacArthur Foundation, which announced the recipients Wednesday. The selection process is shrouded in secrecy, and nominees don’t know they’re being considered until they’re named fellows. The recipients, selected for their “exceptional creativity” and promise for future accomplishments, receive a $625,000 “no-strings-attached” award often referred to as a “genius grant.”

Daugaard, executive director of Seattle’s Public Defender Association, received the grant in recognition of her work to change how police interact with people who have substance addictions and mental illness. In addition to developing the LEAD program, Daugaard served on Seattle’s Community Police Commission since its creation in 2013 until she resigned this year.

Lisa Daugaard was named a 2019 MacArthur fellow for her work on criminal-justice reform. (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

With the Defender Association, Daugaard had challenged the Seattle Police Department in court over what she saw as selective enforcement in drug cases resulting in disproportional punishment against black people. But she decided to partner with the department to create the LEAD program in 2011, along with King County prosecutors, social-service providers, business and neighborhood groups, civil-rights activists and researchers.

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“This is very much the product of unique and inspiring collaboration among people who surprised one another by not only finding that we could work together, but gain deep respect and admiration for one another,” Daugaard said.

The program was found to reduce recidivism rates by nearly 60% and cost less than incarcerating and sending someone through the legal system, according to evaluations conducted by the University of Washington in 2015. Since then, the program has expanded within King County and across the country.

Read about the other MacArthur grant recipients

Daugaard sees the LEAD program in Seattle as a model for the rest of the country, and she feels there is a limited window of opportunity to show that it works.

“There is a widely-held consensus I think nationwide, but particularly in a community like Seattle that thinks of itself as progressive, that we have overincarcerated our people,” she said. “But when the justice system and system of punishment is pulled back, it creates a void that some other response needs to step into.”

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Seattle officials have been national leaders in declaring that there needs to be another way to respond to people who struggle with behavioral challenges and commit low-level crimes, Daugaard said. But leaders need to significantly invest in the program  for it to be successful, she said.

Last year, the City of Seattle approved $2.2 million for the program in 2019 and $3.2 million for 2020, Daugaard said. But with increasing referrals from police, she said case managers are projected to be working double the number of cases they should be by the end of the year.

There are now 700 people being served in Seattle, and 300 others are approved to participate but waiting to be assigned to a case manager, Daugaard said. Without additional funding, Daugaard said the program is on track to run out of room in February.

“When you have police partners willing to do things differently and you have neighborhood and business groups willing to support it, having to tell officers we can no longer take people is heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to think about the missed opportunity there.”

Daugaard said she will identify how to best use the grant before she starts receiving money next year. The grant won’t fix the program’s funding issues, but for Daugaard, it’s “a vote of confidence” as she continues to try.

Daugaard is the 20th Washington resident to be named a MacArthur fellow since 1981, according to the foundation. Last year, University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson received the grant for her research on transgender and gender-nonconforming children.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry, a Seattle native who graduated from The Evergreen State College and is known for the weekly comic strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” among other works, is also one of this year’s winners.

Daugaard graduated from the University of Washington in 1983, before completing her master’s at Cornell University and her law degree at Yale Law School. She became a public defender in 1996, and served as interim deputy director of the King County Department of Public Defense from 2014 to 2015. She became director of the Public Defender Association in 2015.

Correction: Daugaard said that without additional funding, she expects Seattle’s LEAD program to run out of room in February. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the program won’t be able to take new referrals until February.