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Bush Will Sign Loan-Relief Bill for Public-Interest Lawyers

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

  • By: Lawrence Hurley
  • Organization: The Daily Journal
  • Source: CALegalAdvocates > CALegalAdvocates.org

LawrenceHurley

Daily Journal

9/25/07

WASHINGTON - The first part of the legal community's two-pronged strategy to secure financial aid for public-interest lawyers has paid off.

President Bush soon will sign into law the College Cost Reduction Act, passed earlier this month by Congress.

It will provide loan forgiveness for lawyers who serve in the public sector for 10 years.

But that's not all the American Bar Association and its allies are hoping for out of Washington this year.

They also are pushing for a bill that would provide payment assistance for public defenders and state prosecutors in the early years of their careers in an effort to address the high rates of attrition in those jobs.

That bill has passed the Senate as part of a larger higher-education package, but the companion version in the House is awaiting action.

Karen J. Mathis, the immediate past president of the ABA, said passage of the College Cost Reduction Act is welcome, but she stressed that the two pieces of legislation are equally important.

"The bottom line is that kids are getting out of law school with between $80,000 and $120,000 of debt," Mathis said. "There's no way for young people to give back."

Both bills have the enthusiastic backing of prominent prosecutors and public defenders in California, a state in which assistance is particularly crucial because the cost of living is higher than in many other parts of the country.

Public defenders and prosecutors across the state, but particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco, have reported having the same problems hiring talented junior attorneys in recent years.

Los Angeles Public Defender Michael P. Judge, who testified on the issue before Congress this year, welcomes the College Cost Reduction Act but said it does not address the problem of attrition that he faces daily.

Judge has reported that the number of deputy public defenders who leave his office citing economic difficulties has tripled in recent years.

Furthermore, the number of "highly qualified, good candidates who turn down jobs has also tripled," he added.

"It creates a crisis both in terms of public safety and in the integrity of the criminal justice system," Judge said.

The provision in the College Cost Reduction Act forgives loans after 10 years for attorneys working in public serve, including legal aid and indigent defense.

It also applies to other professionals working in the government.

Another section of the bill caps borrowers' payments.

That means that an attorney earning $40,000 with $100,000 of law-school debt would pay only $300 a month instead of $1,151, according to Georgetown Law School professor Philip Schrag.

As Don Saunders, director of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, noted, loan forgiveness is useful, but "10 years is a long time for someone to commit."

That's why the other bill is so attractive to those it would assist.

Under the terms of the proposal, fledgling prosecutors and public defenders could have $30,000 of debt wiped out if they agree to serve for three years.

If applicants stay in their jobs for another three years, they could have an additional $30,000 of their debts paid off.

Federal prosecutors would not be affected, because they are eligible for a similar debt assistance program run by the federal government.

Whether that particular bill passes Congress remains uncertain.

It depends on whether the House Committee on Education and Labor, which is chaired by San Francisco Bay Area Democrat Rep. George Miller, elects to include a version of the bill in a forthcoming higher-education bill.

"The real action will be in the House," Saunders said.

A representative of the committee did not respond to a request seeking comment.

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