In early March, Lorinda Youngcourt will most likely be confirmed as King County’s first permanent public defender. Her staff of roughly 400 is a new one. Previously, four nonprofit agencies contracted with the county to handle public defense, a situation brought to an end by a lawsuit challenging what it argued were inequitable pay and benefits for staffers essentially working as county employees. The job—on a par with that of the county prosecutor—is a big step up for Youngcourt, 52, who most recently headed a nine-person public-defense agency for a county in Indiana. Grabbing a salad for a late lunch one day last week, Youngcourt introduced herself to Seattle Weekly.
not here for the mountains. Youngcourt hails from a 100-acre farm in the middle of the Hoosier National Forest, where she kept 10 horses and could “ride one all day long and not see another person.” Coming to Seattle, she stresses, “is not a quality-of-life move.” So why did she come? “Because you guys are huge.”
She speaks her mind. Just a few weeks after her selection by the 11-member King County Public Defense Advisory Board, Youngcourt, who spent 20 years of her career focusing on capital cases, jumped into a debate over a state bill that would eliminate the death penalty. As of last October, she wrote in a letter to the House committee hearing the bill, the county had spent almost $14 million on three ongoing death-penalty cases. “Please know this is a zero-sum proposition for us. Every dollar spent on capital defense work is a dollar not spent on the thousands of other cases we handle each year.”
She’s got her work cut out for her. Not only does Youngcourt have to unify what had been four separate agencies with unique identities, but she has to confront a drive by the county to cut costs. A last-minute change of heart stopped the county council in November from approving a budget that would have laid off 40 public-defense staffers, half of them attorneys. Instead, the council convened a work group headed by the county public defender and its budget director Dwight Dively. The group is scheduled to deliver a report by April 1.
Youngcourt says she has made clear to Dively that losing 40 staffers—10 percent of her department—would be a “devastating” loss that would increase case load and potentially compromise the quality of public defense. “It would be the opposite of what they hired me to do.”
She says Dively, to his credit, is listening. “I would call it less of a fight now and more of a shared learning experience.” After all, the county has never had a public-defense department before. “It is uncharted territory.”