Two years later, the Department of Justice is making good on distributing several million dollars to help public defenders and prosecutors pay back their student loans.
Nearly $9.9 million in grants will soon reach agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, which will funnel the funds to eligible applicants seeking loan forgiveness help. The money has been tied up in appropriation committees since it was promised in 2008. It comes from the John R. Justice grant program, which was created when the Higher Education Opportunity Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act was designed to facilitate new ways of making higher education accessible and affordable.
The program's purpose is to entice law school graduates to choose lower-paying criminal justice jobs versus a position at a private law firm. Attorneys eligible for the program are allowed $10,000 in benefits per year, and $60,000 overall, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance website. They must agree to remain employed as public defenders or prosecutors for at least three years.
When the act first authorized $25 million for fiscal year 2009 to facilitate aid to students who become federal, state or local public defenders or state or local prosecutors, the NLJ reported that most advocates admitted they did not expect to receive the funding right away.
That amount acted as a celing for what Congress could appropriate but did not necessarily mean it would be released, said Daniel Swanson, aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin introduced legislation that gave the program its legs in 2003 and later added it to the HEOA.
The nearly $10 million in startup funds is still quite an accomplishment, Swanson said, and the same amount will probably be allocated for fiscal year 2011.
State agencies should see the money soon. On Sept. 17, the department announced its first disbursements to state agencies, which were designated by their respective governors.
Funding is based on total state population. Each has been allocated between $100,000 to $500,000, except California, which has been allocated more than $1 million, according to program documents.
The District of Columbia, where the mayor chooses which agency administers the funds, has been allocated $100,000 and will withhold 10 percent for administrative costs, said Angie LaTour of the Office of Justice Programs. Eighteen awards of $2,500 each will be dispersed to prosecutors, she said, and the same for public defenders.
As of Wednesday, the Illinois Student Assistance Program had received 215 grant applications, said Chris Peterson, chief program officer. The deadline to apply is September 30.
More information on the program is available here.