When Collin Tierney walked into a job fair for law school students interested in defending suspected criminals in 2011, he was shocked by what he saw. At table after table, prospective and recent grads were lined up in the dozens for interviews at public defender offices across the country. The lawyers sent to chat with prospective employees weren't prepared for the massive amount of interest, but if they had been paying attention to the calendar, they might have known better.
In 2007, around the time these nascent lawyers were considering whether to go to law school, Congress instituted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. That made law school incredibly affordable by forgiving student loans hanging over students who worked in public service for at least ten years.
Tierney was astounded.
"These offices had no idea what to do with the amount of people that were suddenly applying for jobs," he told me. "You had editors in chiefs of prestigious law journals, you had people that worked in federal government and corporate positions before law school... applying. People at the top of their class, and you had a lot of people like me who made a very conscious decision to go to law school to become a public defender. That large group didn't exist before 2007."
Tierney is now a public defender in Minneapolis, and still paying off his $240,000 in law school debt through the PSLF program.
Check out the trailer for the new segment of VICE on HBO about America's public defender crisis, airing Friday, June 30, at 7:30 and 11 PM.
But the program that bolstered the public defender job market—and ever so slightly helped tip the scales towards defense in a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly privileges prosecution—is in danger. In his proposed budget, President Trump has called for the elimination of the debt forgiveness program for anyone taking out loans past July 1, 2018. This spells trouble in the eyes of advocates and experts across the country.
"Public Service Loan Forgiveness has leveled the playing field for graduates with expensive educations so that highly qualified professionals can do work that's in the public interest in spite of the persistently low salaries in many of those fields," said Heather Jarvis, an expert on America's student debt crisis. "It's really critical for providing constitutionally required services, like public defense, to have people with appropriate levels of education, and the cost of education has skyrocketed and doesn't seem to be slowing in that trend."
Even beyond the immediate impact it has on law students, public defender offices nationwide say the cut would winnow a job pool that has steadily grown in size and diversity over the past decade, with public defense emerging as a career choice available to a broad swath of Americans. It would also limit the amount of new lawyers that those offices could hire, as they've come to rely on the loan program to keep salaries relatively low, compared at least to jobs in corporate law.
The result would likely be way fewer public defenders, just as the Trump administration steers the Department of Justice back toward a Reefer Madness approach to drug crimes.
"What we would see if this program is eliminated in terms of recruitment of public defenders is that the demographics would really start to shift, and impact the abilities of these offices to really help the communities they serve," said Radhika Singh Miller, the director of the Civil Legal Aid Initiative at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). Singh Miller previously worked for Equal Justice Works, which organizes the job fair that Tierney attended, and saw firsthand the impact that the PSLF has had on interest in public defense.
According to a 2015 report commissioned by the NLADA, 70 percent of public defenders surveyed took or remained employed at their job because of the federal loan forgiveness program. The program has worked to staff almost entire offices in cities where defenders' low salaries don't come close to matching the cost of living, like in Brooklyn, New York.
At Brooklyn Defender Services, both Nabila Taj and Talia Peleg, two graduates of CUNY Law School, take advantage of the PSLF program to provide immigrant defense. Neither of them would have been able to afford to live in the city and work their jobs if it wasn't for the program, they said.
"If I were not in this program, I would be paying about one-third of my salary into loans, and I would probably only be able to afford rent and maybe dinner once a week," Taj told me. "Currently I pay $200 a month, as opposed to $1,000, and that's a huge difference when I'm taking home $63,000 a year, before taxes."
Peleg, through her work, has been able to win important victories for immigrants detained in New York City, and the case of one client she represented was the basis for a second circuit federal court case where it was decided that immigrants in New York couldn't be held longer than six months without a bail hearing.
"You would see a huge change in applicants without this program," said Peleg, the daughter of immigrants herself. "Lawyering shouldn't be only for the wealthy, and social justice movement lawyering needs to come from within the community. This proposal would absolutely make this career a non-starter."
According to her, many of the lawyers who worked on the second circuit case were able to become lawyers because of the PSLF.
If you ask public defenders, and especially immigration lawyers, the Trump administration is pursuing a two-pronged attack against due process: While enforcement is increased and alternatives to incarceration de-prioritized, the already marginal amounts of funding (at least in comparison to prosecutor's offices) available to public defenders could dry up overnight. This would also impact lawyers working on non-immigration civil cases, like those involved in consumer protection.
Spencer Watson, a rising third-year at Berkeley Law School, is interning this summer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That's the brainchild of US Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the agency that has been in the cross-hairs of conservative legislators as much as any other since its establishment in 2011. Watson, who was raised in a single-parent household, is using the PSLF to go into public interest law. Before law school, he worked as a credit counselor.
"The one-two punch, in going after the ability of folks to access reasonable capital, reasonable debt, reasonable credit, and also cutting the ability of the government to fill that space with loans—you're going to see a lot of bad loans made," Watson told me. "What's even more tragic than ending the program, is that the people that would now be shunted out are the people who have already been left out for so long. We need those perspectives, we need those views. We need them in government and positions of power."
Trump's budget proposals have already faced stiff bipartisan resistance in the Senate, especially the proposal to phase out the PSLF. But even the Obama administration tried to place caps on the loan program, recognizing that its popularity would begin to cost the government a lot of revenue once loans began to qualify for forgiveness (that tab, coincidentally, starts being paid this year, by a federal government more intent on cutting costs than ever). Still, advocates of the program say that's no reason to phase it out all together—unless you think poor people do just fine in America's criminal justice system without real help.
"The impact of cuts to this program in terms of adequate representation would be dramatic," Singh Miller said. "Caseloads would increase, experienced lawyers would leave, social workers would be cut, it would become that much harder for clients to get the defense they deserve."
Of course, given the general tenor of the Trump administration when it comes to the rule of law, it's fair to wonder if that's exactly what they have in mind.
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