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Student Loan Repayment Assistance Available for Public Service Attorneys

Blair Tinkle, General Counsel and Congressional Liaison

Blair Tinkle, General Counsel to the Association and Congressional Liaison

One of the more pressing challenges that the criminal justice system faces today is the retention of public service attorneys. In the current economic climate, both prosecutorís and public defenderís offices find it difficult to attract attorneys to public service within their offices with law graduates often times seeking more lucrative private sector positions. There is also the related problem of retaining current levels in public sector legal offices with lawyers choosing to cut their public service short to earn greater salaries in private sector jobs. One of the main reasons for these difficulties is the large educational debt of many recent law graduates.

As a way to encourage public service and strengthen the criminal justice system, the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Program was signed into law by President Obama through the Higher Education Opportunities Act (P.L. 110-315, section 952) on Aug. 14, 2008. The program was recently funded in H.R. 3288, the fiscal year 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act on Dec. 16, 2009. In total, the Act provides $10 million in student loan repayment assistance for lawyers employed as state and local prosecutors and public defenders, and federal public defenders. More specifically, it provides loan repayment of up to $10,000 yearly for a maximum of $60,000 to lawyers who agree to remain employed as prosecutors or public defenders for at least three years. In addition, these grants are available to be used with other loan repayment options offered through schools and government.

According to the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), since this program is being funded for the first time, administrative details for implementation are currently being finalized by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress. These details will largely be based on input from stakeholder groups such as the National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Bar Association. To date, all reports from Congress and DOJ have been optimistic that the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act would be operational by this summer.

On April 29, 2009, 33 state Attorneys General sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging the DOJ to ensure that all prosecuting attorneys, as well as those working for local public defenderís offices, be eligible for this loan repayment program. Attorneys employed by the state Attorney General can apply for assistance if they meet the criteria defined in the Act.

For future updates and more information on the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Act, please see the NDAA Web site at http://www.ndaa.org.

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