The cost of law school continues to be a burden for many public defenders and prosecutors. Some reluctantly leave public service for the private sector in order to pay back their loans.
Perla Tirado loves being a public defender. She earned her law degree at DePaul University and passed the bar exam a year and a half ago. Now she defends those accused of domestic violence crimes who can't afford a lawyer.
Tirado does it for $52,000 a year, which is dwarfed by the size of her student loans. They total about $150,000. Tirado, 31, figures she'll be close to retirement when she's done paying off the loans.
And things aren't any better for prosecutors. Julian Brevard, who works in the child protection division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, has debts totaling about $90,000. He started two years ago after earning his law degree at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Brevard says that the reward of helping victims of child abuse and neglect is worth much more than the six-figure salary he could earn at a downtown firm. But he admits there are tradeoffs.
"Material things do have to be sacrificed," he says. He drives a 2000 Nissan Maxima, the same car he had in law school, and brings his lunch to work every day.
According to the American Bar Association, public law school graduates owed at least $50,000 on average in 2005; private law school graduates amassed $80,000 in debt. That's on top of $20,000 in undergraduate debt.
"Its one of the defining issues for the young prosecutors in our office. And frankly not just the young lawyers any longer, [but] lawyers who have been here for a number of years," says Bernie Murray, chief of criminal prosecutions in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
He says it's becoming more difficult to recruit the best and brightest law school graduates. And, Murray says, many young lawyers who are willing to make sacrifices to work in the public sector can't do it for long.
"After the three- or four-year mark, they're getting married, they're starting families, they're trying to buy a condominium, they're trying to buy a house," he says. "Some of them are just trying to move out of their parents' house. And they realize that with the law school debt they have and the salary they're making, it's just not enough to make ends meet."
Before the criminal justice system loses more good lawyers, American Bar Association President Karen Mathis says, Congress needs to provide student-loan debt relief.
"We think it's perfectly appropriate that government should share in lessening those financial burdens if you expect young people to go into public-service careers."
House lawmakers this week confronted what they called the "crisis in college affordability" and overwhelmingly passed a bill that would reduce interest rates on student loans.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is expected to introduce a bill soon to ease the financial burden for law school graduates who work in the public sector. The measure would provide up to $10,000 a year to help repay student loans for prosecutors and public defenders who commit to remain in their jobs for at least three years.