By Joel Hall
The Higher Education and Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137), which includes several incentives to make education more affordable for students, was passed by both houses of Congress.
The bill is on the desk of President George W. Bush and awaiting his action.
The legislation, authored by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga), is aimed at creating incentives to draw more law school graduates into public service careers.
"We're just inches away from a signature," said Amy Schultz, Scott's legislative assistant. "It will be signed into law within this week, I suspect. The president has not given any indication that he would veto it."
The measure cleared its last hurdle when it was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives July 31.
If signed into law, the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders act of 2007 (H.R. 916) will create a loan repayment program in which law school graduates may receive $10,000 a year for up to six years for agreeing to serve for at least three years as a criminal prosecutor, or public defender.
Scott said "crushing student debt burdens" have deterred many law graduates from entering public service careers, which often offer meager pay in comparison to corporate firms.
"A serious situation is emerging, impacting public safety, justice, fairness, and the integrity of the criminal justice systems, as a severe shortage of qualified prosecutors and public defenders looms large over our entire nation," said Scott in a prepared statement.
"In Georgia and throughout the county, the recruitment and retention of public prosecutors and defenders has been a daunting task in recent years."
Trea Pipkin, an assistant district attorney in Henry County, said the salary for a first-year associate at a large law firm dwarfs that of a first-year assistant district attorney. He lauded the bill as a great way "to attract capable, judicious prosecutors."
"There is a lot of responsibility that comes with this job, so you want to attract your best and your brightest," said Pipkin. "A large law firm in Atlanta is going to start you at about $120,000. A medium-sized law firm, where most of your associates will go, is around $70,000 to $80,000.
"It's hard to attract your best and your brightest when all you can offer them is $50,000," said Pipkin.
Pipkin said many law school graduates come into public service, but leave for larger firms after gaining a few years of trial experience. He said the bill would improve retention rates at district attorneys' offices around the country.
"The burden of paying back a law school loan could really set you back," said Steve Frey, a lawyer who often serves as a public defender in Clayton County. "What this does, it allows people to do some public service work, get experience, and pay off loans, all at once.
"I think you'll have people who come do public defender work simply to pay off loans, and then never leave," said Frey.
Tommy Floyd, Henry County District Attorney and president of the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia, said the concept of H.R. 916 has been applied to doctors, teachers, and federal prosecutors, and that "there is a need" to create incentives for young lawyers to become prosecutors.
"All the time, law students tell us, I'd love to work in a district attorney's office, but I can't afford to," said Floyd. "That's what this legislation is designed to help with. That will help us tremendously in recruiting young prosecutors."