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On May 15, the U.S. House of Representatives took a critical first step in addressing a growing crisis in our public legal system. It did so by passing a bill � the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Act of 2007 � to help state and local prosecutors and federal, state and local public defenders pay off up to $10,000 in student loan debt per year, in exchange for a commitment to complete at least three years of qualifying public service. This bill is an investment in the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the American Bar Association � as the voice of the legal profession � applauds its passage. Lawyers have a strong desire to serve the public. Unfortunately, from a practical point, many cannot afford to serve as prosecutors or public defenders because often they are paying off many thousands of dollars in law school tuition debt that they have incurred. At a median starting salary of $42,000, lawyers cannot pay a monthly loan repayment of $800 to $1,100 on top of other living expenses. Prosecutors and public defenders are a cornerstone of our justice system and this bill is an important public investment. By paying qualifying public lawyers $10,000 per year, and up to $60,000, in debt payments, the bill will help more lawyers stay in public service. So we can build greater experience and continuity where it is urgently needed. Under the current system, lawyers often are forced to leave such public service for higher-paying positions in law firms or other venues, meaning that the lawyers who do remain are stretched thin and must assume considerable caseloads. In addition to the strain on the individual lawyer and family, this threatens the administration of justice and the very fundamentals of our nation because lawyers do not have adequate time to devote to each legal case � each case that involves a very real person and his or her livelihood. The bipartisan nature of the bill and the fact that it passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 341-73 attests to the strong support for the bill. Now that the House has taken this important step, we encourage the Senate to move forward and pass the measure. It’s a sound investment in justice for all of us. Karen J. Mathis, a Denver commercial and estate lawyer, is president of the American Bar Association.

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