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WASHINGTON � Legislation is advancing in both houses of Congress to create a student loan repayment program for public sector attorneys who handle criminal cases, and prospects for final passage this year are strong, according to congressional and outside sources. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved and sent to the full Senate a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that would establish within the U.S. Department of Justice a student loan repayment program for lawyers who agree to remain employed for at least three years as state or local criminal prosecutors, or as state, local or federal public defenders in criminal cases. The bill was amended in committee to ensure that nonprofit attorneys performing indigent defense work full-time under contract with nonprofit organizations in locales where there is no public defender office are eligible for the repayment program. Those engaged in supervising and training those attorneys are also eligible. The bill additionally includes public sector attorneys handling juvenile delinquency cases. $ 10, 000 REPAID Durbin’s bill, S. 442, which has drawn Republican as well as Democratic co-sponsors, is modeled after a student loan repayment program currently available to federal employees. Like the federal-employee program, attorneys eligible for loan repayment could have up to $10,000 per year of student loan debt repaid. Loan repayments are capped at a maximum of $60,000 per individual. The bill would authorize $25 million for the program in fiscal year 2008 and similar amounts, adjusted for inflation, in subsequent years. Although originally drafted to provide loan repayments on a first come, first served basis, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., offered an amendment, which was approved, to require that priority be given to those attorneys with the least ability to repay their student loans.
‘It is clear that large student debt deters many law graduates from pursuing public service careers.’

Sen. Richard Durbin

“Least ability” would be determined, according to Durbin’s staff, by examining the attorney’s assets, debt, loan amount and local cost of living, among other factors. Durbin has pushed this legislation for several years, his interest fueled at first by problems in his home state in recruiting and retaining prosecutors and public defenders struggling with large student loans and low salaries. Those problems, he said, now have been voiced around the country and during the Senate hearing on his bill. “It is clear that large student debt deters many law graduates from pursuing public service careers,” he said. The average law graduate has a student loan debt of $78,763, for those who attended private schools, and $51,056 for public schools, according to national surveys. The National Association for Law Placement, NALP, reports the median entry-level salary for public defenders is $43,000. With 11 to 15 years of experience, the median salary increases to $65,500. The salary progression for state prosecuting attorneys is similar, starting at around $46,000 and increasing to about $68,000 for those with 11 to 15 years of experience. I think the bill’s chances are very good,” said Kyle O’Dowd, legislative director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which, along with the National District Attorneys Association and other legal groups, supports the bill. “With Sen. Durbin’s status in the Senate and the bipartisan support it has so far, the bill is gaining momentum and we think it will see the light of day sometime this spring.” Durbin, according to his staff, will be looking for support on the Senate floor to move the bill. HOUSE ACTION EXPECTED A similar bill � H.R. 916 � sponsored by U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., is expected to face committee action in April. Although some “fiscally conservative” senators voiced concern about S. 442, opposition has been “muted at best,” according to some following the legislation. “If the bill does get enacted, there will always be a fight for funding, but we think the benefits, as seen in the federal program, will justify the funds,” said a Durbin staffer. During fiscal 2005, 479 lawyers working in federal agencies received loan repayments under the federal program, including 242 lawyers for the Securities and Exchange Commission and 85 attorneys for the Department of Justice, reports the Office of Personnel Management. According to OPM, federal agencies across the board said the program has been of tremendous benefit in recruiting and retaining attorneys. Marcia Coyle is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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