President Bush on Friday signed into law legislation expanding a student loan forgiveness program for students who become legal aid lawyers, state or local prosecutors and public defenders.

The program is contained in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137), which updates existing programs and creates new ways to make higher education accessible and affordable.

The new law amends the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to direct the attorney general to assume the obligation to repay student loans for borrowers who agree to remain employed, for at least three years, as: (1) state or local criminal prosecutors; or (2) state, local or federal public defenders in criminal cases. It allows a borrower and the attorney general to enter into an additional loan repayment agreement, after the required three-year period, for a successive period of service that may be less than three years. It also limits the amount paid under the program on behalf of any borrower to $10,000 per calendar year and $60,000 total.

Under the program, the attorney general must give priority in granting repayment benefits to borrowers who have the least ability to repay their loans.

Legal aid attorneys who take part in the program, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Education, could individually receive up to $6,000 per year up to a total amount of $40,000.

In addition to attracting attorneys who might not otherwise find legal aid law a feasible alternative, the program is expected to stem high turnover rates, which will provide offices with better trained and more experienced staff.

“This opportunity will allow thousands of young attorneys each year to enter the legal aid field without the overwhelming burden of law school loans forcing them into less-fulfilling private sector positions,” said Don Saunders, director of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

The measure also requires the inspector general of the Department of Justice to report to Congress on the cost of the loan repayment program and the impact it has on the hiring and retention of prosecutors and public defenders. The comptroller general is directed to study and report to Congress on the impact of law school accreditation requirements and other factors on law school costs and access, including the impact of such requirements on racial and ethnic minorities.

The measure authorizes appropriations for the program for FY2008-FY2013.