RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Fridays, our business report focuses on your money. Today, student loans.
House lawmakers this week confronted what they call the crisis in college affordability and overwhelmingly passed the bill that would reduce interest rates on student loans. The bill now heads to the Senate, where Illinois Senator Dick Durbin will soon introduce a bill on a related issue. His proposal focuses on law school graduates who work in the public sector, like public defenders and prosecutors, who are struggling to pay off student loans.
From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: Perla Torado loves being a public defender.
Ms. PERLA TORADO (Attorney): If I'm not a public defender, I can't see myself practicing law.
SCHAPER: Torado is standing in this heavy foot traffic in the lobby of the Cook County Criminal Courts building in Chicago. Since earning her law degree at DePaul University and passing the bar exam a year and a half ago, Torado now defends those accused of domestic violence crimes who can't afford a lawyer. She does it for $52,000 a year, which is dwarfed by the size of Torado's student loans.
Ms. TORADO: About $150,000. I've chosen the longest route that they'll allow me to pay, 30 years. I figured I'm 31 now, so I figured I'll be close to retirement when I'm done paying off my loans.
SCHAPER: And things aren't any better for prosecutors.
Mr. JULIAN BERVARD(ph) (Prosecutor): I'm in debt about $90,0000, payments of about 670 a month.
SCHAPER: Julian Bervard(ph) works in the Child Protection Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. He started two years ago after earning his law degree at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He says 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 trade-offs.
Mr. BERVARD: Material things will have to be sacrificed, yes.
SCHAPER: Such as? What kind of a car do you drive?
Mr. BERVARD: Had the same car I had in law school, Nissan Maxima, 2000 Nissan Maxima.
SCHAPER: Got a lot of miles on it?
Mr. BERVARD: Lot of miles.
SCHAPER: And Bervard says there's no wining and dining at steak houses.
Mr. BERVARD: I bring my lunch every day, most of us around here brown bag it.
SCHAPER: According to the American Bar Association, in 2005, on average public law school graduates owed at least $50,000, while private law school graduates amassed $80,000 in debt. And that doesn't include $20,000 in undergraduate debt.
Mr. BERNIE MURRAY (Prosecutor): It's one of the defining issues for the young prosecutors in our office. And frankly, not just the young lawyers any longer; lawyers that have been here for a number of years.
SCHAPER: Bernie Murray is 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.
Mr. MURRAY: So 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. Some of them are just trying to move out of their parents' house. And they realized that with their law school debt that they have and the salary that they're making, it's just not enough to make ends meet.
SCHAPER: Before the criminal justice system loses more good lawyers, American Bar Association president Karen Mathis says Congress needs to provide student loan debt relief.
Mr. KAREN MATHIS (President, American Bar Association): 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.
SCHAPER: Within the next couple of weeks, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is expected to introduce a bill to 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.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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