February 27, 2007

Harrisburg, PA – The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association today called for the passage of bipartisan legislation to make long-term public service careers more realistic option for law school graduates.

The John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act (S. 442), sponsored by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), would establish a student loan repayment option for full-time prosecutors and public defenders who agree to serve as public interest attorneys for a minimum time commitment.  A hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for today.

“Law school graduates today face a staggering amount of debt – debt that can affect important career choices,” said PDAA President and Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin.  “We applaud Sen. Specter for recognizing that most of Pennsylvania’s district attorney offices can’t operate without young lawyers willing to enter and stay in public service and we urge Congress to act on this important legislation.”

A 2005 survey conducted by the National District Attorneys Association’s, Office of Research and Evaluation found that 89 percent of the respondents assumed debt during law school to pay tuition costs and 85 percent advised that they still owe money on their loans. The average amount of law school loans assumed was $66,422 with the majority of prosecutors having loans between $45,000 and $90,000.  The median entry-level salary for a public defender and prosecuting attorney averages less than $40,000 per year.

Debt is not only a deciding factor in career choices, but can also deplete a district attorney’s office of experienced prosecutors.  One national study found that more than two-thirds (69%) of attorneys who leave the public sector do so within five years of employment.  In the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office for example, 41% of its prosecutors leave in their third year of practice.  Departing attorneys cite loan debt as the most significant factor in their decision.

“This bill will not only help recruit new prosecutors, it will help us keep the experienced prosecutors we already have,” said Martin.  “As a former district attorney, Senator Specter knows that prosecutors and public defenders make tremendous sacrifices to serve the public interest.  This bill would provide them with some much-needed relief and recognize the important role they play protecting our communities.”

The John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Act is modeled after the existing student loan repayment program for federal employees that has been used effectively by the United States Department of Justice and other federal agencies to recruit and retain attorneys.