Newly minted attorneys longing for a career of helping others, but forced into the private sector because of tremendous law school debt, may soon have a new option that will allow them to make a living and to serve indigent defendants at the same time. On July 31, both houses of Congress passed the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act as part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill. The bill passed the Senate 83-8 and the House of Representatives 380-49. It has been sent to the president and is awaiting his signature.
Once it becomes law, lawyers who commit to working as public defenders or prosecutors for at least three years will be able to have a sizable chunk of their student loans paid. The law will provide payments of up to $10,000 a year, to a cap of $60,000. In addition to attracting attorneys who might not otherwise find public legal service a feasible alternative, the program is expected to stem high turnover rates, which will provide offices with better trained and more experienced staff. The bill will cap the spending for this program at $25 million a year. NLADA (National Legal Aid & Defender Association) has been a strong advocate of Sen. Dick Durbinís (D-IL) work to get this bill passed.
"This bill represents an incredible opportunity for thousands of recent law school graduates to follow their hearts and help others achieve equal justice," said NLADA Director of Defender Legal Services Richard Goemann. "This bill puts us one step closer to ensuring that experienced and qualified public defenders remain on the job; making our justice system fair and efficient and our communities and neighborhoods safer."