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Public Service Careers and Student Loan Debt: What You Should Know

May 7, 2012
The rising cost of tuition and burden of repaying mortgage-sized student loan debt prevents many lawyers from pursuing public service careers.  Student loan debt is consistently cited as the overwhelming reason why attorneys decline or leave positions as prosecutors and public defenders.  Fortunately, a range of federal and other loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) are in place to address the problem.  Acknowledging the need to recruit and retain lawyers who ensure the integrity of our criminal justice system, Congress enacted the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act to encourage qualified attorneys to choose and continue in careers as prosecutors and public defenders. The John R. Justice Program (JRJ) provides loan repayment assistance for state and federal public defenders and state prosecutors who agree to remain employed as public defenders and prosecutors for at least three years.     In its recently released FY 2012 JRJ Program Application Guidance, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) chose to leverage its limited funds by encouraging agencies administering the John R. Justice Grant Program to publicize other loan repayment opportunities, including the federal Income-Based Repayment  and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs. Income-based repayment programs allow borrowers to make payments based on a percentage of their income, resulting in lower payments than would otherwise be required.  Public Service Loan Forgiveness offers federal student loan forgiveness after ten years of public service employment, including as a prosecutor or public defender.  Over 100 law schools and more than 20 states offer LRAPs with loan repayment aid for graduates who take low-paying jobs.  Many people burdened with significant educational debt do not know that they might qualify these programs. Raising awareness of alternative funding sources allows administering agencies to stretch grant dollars further in pursuit of the program’s primary goals: recruiting and retaining qualified prosecutors and public defenders. This is also an essential step to raise awareness of the complexities of student loan repayment decisions and debt relief programs, and try to ensure that JRJ applicants and beneficiaries are making the best choices given their unique circumstances. For example, borrowers should make certain that JRJ loan repayment assistance will not adversely affect the loan repayment opportunities offered by other programs.  For this reason, JRJ applicants and beneficiaries are strongly encouraged to consult with the U.S. Department of Education and resources provided below – as well as relevant law school or state program policies -- to learn how receipt of grant benefits may affect awards. The new BJA Application Guidance language echoes President Obama’s commitment to helping graduates repay their educational loans. Announced in October 2011, President Obama’s accelerated “pay as you earn” program makes IBR improvements previously scheduled to take effect in 2014 available to some borrowers as soon as 2012. It is estimated the more favorable terms will enable up to 1.6 million borrowers to have more manageable loan payments.   To learn more about the John R. Justice Grant Program and other student-loan repayment assistance opportunities, visit: Information on Income Based Repayment from the Department of Education  | Information on Public Service Loan Forgiveness from the Department of Education. |Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Student Debt Repayment Assistant | Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Programs from Equal Justice Works | List of State-Based Loan Repayment Assistance Programs   For more information on the U.S. Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, visit:

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Updated April 7, 2017