Local Criminal Justice Reformer Receives Prestigious MacArthur Grant

The grant awards $625,000 with "no-strings-attached" to its fellows, paid out over five years in quarterly installments

By Erica C. Barnett

Lisa

September 27, 2019

Lisa Daugaard, the Seattle criminal justice reform advocate and director of the Public Defender Association (PDA), used to joke with her staff that she would never get a MacArthur grant—the no-strings-attached financial stipend commonly known as the “genius grant.” “It has been kind of an internal joke among my colleagues and family that this would never happen to me, because I had a particularly challenging dynamic with MacArthur over how the work in the [criminal justice] field should progress,” Daugaard says.

So when she got a call from the MacArthur Foundation—several calls, actually, plus a number of increasingly urgent texts—she thought, “I’ll get to this when I get to it.”

Daugaard was preoccupied with a more pressing problem—the latest city budget left the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program underfunded, and the PDA would have to stop taking on new clients starting in early 2020. The city has expanded the program geographically since it first started as a Belltown pilot program in 2005, but resources have not kept up with the expanding need, and the small staff is now “pinned at their desks” by staggering caseloads, Daugaard says. “We’ve been struggling with fairly profound questions about whether LEAD is going to make it in Seattle. … The model will collapse without some recognition that as we build enthusiasm for and willingness to use this model, by definition, we have to grow in capacity.”

So when her phone started ringing, Daugaard says, “I was very preoccupied and grumpy. That morning, I was walking around thinking, ‘I’m kind of done. I don’t think I can fix this.’”

When she finally returned the call, “and then I realized that the only thing they needed to ask me about was whether I would accept this award, it was just one of those moments in one’s life where the thing that you had absolutely, conclusively ruled out as ever possibly happening does happen, and it reminds you that you should probably stop assuming that you know what is possible,” Daugaard says.

LEAD, a joint effort between the PDA, police, and other community stakeholders, is a pre-arrest diversion program that offers alternatives to the criminal justice system for low-level offenders with mental illness and substance use disorders. The program has been shown to be more effective than other approaches at reducing recidivism, reducing arrests by 60 percent compared to other approaches. Versions of LEAD now exist across the country—a testament, supporters say, to the effectiveness of the program.

MacArthur’s process for choosing grant recipients is notoriously secretive. It involves following potential recipients’ work for multiple years and interviewing other people in their orbit to gauge the impact of their work. “The idea that folks who have tried to steer the criminal justice field are feeling confident about this direction was kind of news to me, and very welcome information,” Daugaard says.

She hopes Mayor Jenny Durkan and other city leaders are paying attention. “The people who confer about what direction our field needs to take have decided that this is a very promising direction and that this is not a risk. I hope that that is the takeaway,” she says.

As for what she plans to do with that $625,000 of grant money from the foundation? Daugaard says she’ll figure that out soon—right after she finishes up a couple of big projects, including training 15 organizations from across the U.S. on the LEAD model. “I think in 2020 I will be able to start stepping away and doing some writing” about the theory and practice of LEAD and why it works. She knows the program will go on whether she’s actively engaged on a day-to-day basis or not. “I’m proud and pleased that [LEAD] is not dependent on any one person or any one personality and style,” she says. “I’m really confident that that the same insights will be generated, and the same problem-solving will happen, whether I’m there or not.”

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