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A state task force has recommended that Georgia pay up to $600 a month on education loans for prosecutors, public defenders and state law department lawyers. The group is expected to deliver its report to Gov. Roy E. Barnes this week for the loan forgiveness program, which would have to be enacted by the Legislature. The program would assist an estimated 450 lawyers and cost $2.7 million a year, according to the task force. Barnes created the Georgia Legal Loan Forgiveness Task Force, headed by Dougherty County District Attorney Kenneth B. Hodges III, in July. He asked the group to offer solutions to the problem of lawyers declining public service work because of heavy education debt loads. A loan forgiveness program, the governor said, also would improve indigent defense and help rural areas attract prosecutors. The task force’s draft report poses the issue as one of public safety. A loan forgiveness program, the report says, could help ensure that all citizens — those accused of crimes and the victims of crimes — would get top-quality legal representation. All too often, the report says, salary restraints and competition from the much higher-paying private sector inhibit recruitment of attorneys to public service jobs. LOW PAY, HIGH DEBT The average starting salary for associates at 46 private firms in Georgia, according to a Fulton County Daily Report survey cited in the draft report, was $87,000. Prosecutors, public defenders and law department lawyers have an average beginning salary of $41,300 — “a salary disparity of over 50 percent for public service work,” the draft report says. “Low entry salaries, combined with high educational debt, create an inability to hire and retain experienced and qualified attorneys to staff the criminal justice system in Georgia,” the report says. According to Georgia’s law schools, the average debt load for graduates in the class of 2000 at Emory University was $67,427; $40,333 at Georgia State University; $68,655 at Mercer University; and $38,526 at the University of Georgia. (Georgia State’s figure includes some undergraduate debt.) LOANS TAKE 26 PERCENT OF PAY Surveys by the loan forgiveness task force found that prosecutors in Georgia averaged an education debt load of $58,985 and public defenders, $60,406. Prosecutors, public defenders and state law department lawyers surveyed had an average monthly loan payment of $571, which, based on an average salary, amounted to 17 percent of their gross income and 26 percent of their net, the report says. Educational debt load, in turn, affects the ability of prosecuting agencies, public defender offices and the state law department to fill vacancies and retain qualified lawyers. The task force said that public defender offices in Georgia had turnover rates as high as 66 percent in the last two years. Turnover among prosecutors for the same period was much lower: 11 percent in 2000 and 12 percent in 2001, according to the task force. The Georgia Department of Law lost 19 percent of its attorneys in 2000 and 16.7 percent in 2001. But prosecutors had a harder time filling jobs. The task force found 98 prosecutorial vacancies statewide and said some rural circuits have waited as long as a year to fill those slots. The proposed loan forgiveness program initially would include only the three targeted groups, according to the report. Other public sector lawyers, such as civil legal aid attorneys, could be added as funding becomes available, the report says. Participants in the program would have to be Georgia residents and work full time in one of the three public-interest categories: � A state, county or muncipal prosecution office; � A city, county, state or university-affiliated public defender office or a criminal defense organization that handles indigent defense exclusively as a nonprofit corporation; � The Georgia Department of Law. The program would pay the lender monthly either $600 or the exact loan amount, whichever is smaller. Payments would continue as long as the employee stays with the agency, and would qualify for income exclusion under federal tax laws. The task force also recommends that the loan forgiveness program be administered through the Georgia Student Finance Commission (which administers the HOPE scholarship program), and that it be structured to permit private donations to the fund.

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