Monday, January 31, 2011
[CHICAGO, IL] – Prosecutors and public defenders serving in courtrooms across Illinois will receive much-needed financial assistance with mounting student loan bills under the John R. Justice (JRJ) Grant Program, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said (D-IL) today.
“In order for our criminal justice system to effectively protect the public interest, we need qualified attorneys to prosecute cases and provide criminal defendants with their right to counsel,” Durbin said. “Unfortunately, prosecutor and public defender offices often have serious difficulty hiring and retaining good attorneys because of the burden of crushing student loan debt. JRJ Grants help to alleviate some of that burden in exchange for a commitment to service.
“Prosecutor and public defender offices already deal with enormous caseloads and tight budgets. Training new attorneys because of high turnover is expensive and time consuming. The JRJ Grant Program is a targeted investment that will make our criminal justice system stronger and make more efficient use of our tax dollars by keeping good attorneys on the job.”
According to the American Bar Association, the average educational debt for law school graduates is $66,000 for public school graduates and $100,000 for private school graduates—not counting undergraduate debt. At the same time, the median starting salary for state and local prosecutors and public defenders is between $45,000 and $50,000.
State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said a total of 26 Cook County Assistant State's Attorneys have been awarded John R. Justice grants, a welcome boost from the federal government that will help local prosecutors retain younger attorneys facing crushing loan debt.
“We have so many qualified and gifted young attorneys who have the desire to pursue a long-term career in public service, but are often forced to seek higher paying jobs in the private sector due to the significant debt they face from law school,” Alvarez said. “These grants are an important tool to help us keep these young lawyers with us, particularly at a time when we are facing significant budget cuts at the local level here in Cook County.”
Durbin first introduced the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act in 2003. He later successfully included it in the Higher Education Opportunity Act that became law in 2008. The program, administered by Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), was allocated $365,309 last year by the federal government to distribute to Illinois prosecutors and public defenders. Durbin worked with an advisory committee of distinguished prosecutor and defender representatives to establish a fair process for distributing JRJ benefits within each of the five appellate districts statewide. Grantees will receive between $2,000 and $4,000 per year over the course of three years.
Allocation of program funds is equally divided between prosecutors and public defenders. From the 400 applications received, awards have been determined for 75 defenders and 53 prosecutors. The awardees by district include 78 from District 1 (Cook County), 25 from District 2 (Northern Illinois), 11 from District 3 (North Central Illinois), six from District 4 (Central Illinois), five from District 5 (Southern Illinois), and three statewide prosecutors.
“We are pleased to administer this important federal program that serves to encourage qualified attorneys to choose careers as prosecutors and public defenders and to continue in that service,” said ISAC Executive Director Andrew Davis.
Named for the late John Reid Justice of South Carolina, the JRJ Grant Program encourages qualified attorneys to serve as state and local prosecutors and public defenders by providing targeted loan repayment assistance for those who commit to continued employment in those positions for at least three years. The JRJ program is modeled on existing loan repayment programs that cover federal executive branch employees and the Department of Justice and that have demonstrated great success as an attorney recruitment and retention tool.
Durbin’s legislation creating the JRJ Program was supported by the National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Council of Chief Defenders, the National Juvenile Defender Center, the American Bar Association, the Conference of Chief Judges, and the American Law Deans Association.
Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC)
100 W. Randolph Street, Ste. 3-200
Chicago, IL 60601