The House Finance Committee is expected to allocate $3 million over the next two years to fund a program aimed at attracting more public defenders throughout Ohio.
With little discussion, the state Criminal Justice Committee passed House Bill 5 to create the Public Defender State Loan Repayment Program. State Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, disclosed the price tag as the committee signed off on the bill.
The committee did not hear any oral testimony before voting Thursday, but two organizations – Americans for Prosperity-Ohio and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO) – submitted written statements in support of the plan.
“The high cost of acquiring legal education today places a significant financial burden on many young attorneys,” Adam Schwiebert, a policy analyst for CCAO, said in his testimony. “This heavy burden precludes many young and talented attorneys from pursuing public service careers such as working as a public defender.
“This ultimately leads to shortages of talented public defenders in certain areas of the state,” Schwiebert added. “This legislation is a good step in alleviating some of the financial burden borne by young public defenders and helps ensure that quality legal counsel is available in Ohio regardless of geographic location.”
Under the program, the State Public Defender may repay an educational loan taken by an attorney in exchange for the attorney’s employment as a public defender for at least three years in an area where there is a shortage.
As part of the plan, attorneys who work as a full-time public defender for three years would receive up to $50,000, while part-time attorneys would receive up to $25,000. Attorneys who give a fourth or fifth year of full-time service could receive an additional $35,000, while attorneys who work part-time could receive up to $17,500.
The Department of Health currently administers similar loan repayment programs for physicians, dentists and dental hygienists working in areas where there is a shortage of health or dental professionals.
“Every Ohioan should enjoy legal representation, regardless of their resources, in order to protect against government overreach and abuse which, unfortunately, does occur too within our justice system,” Jeff Dillon, legislative liaison for Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, said in his testimony.
“AFP-Ohio has already called attention to the extra funding that the Office of the Public Defender needs in this year’s budget cycle to address historic understaffing,” Dillon added. “In order to provide the highest quality public defense possible, the OPD should enjoy the recruiting benefit that loan repayment can provide, making public defense a more viable career choice than it currently is for too many otherwise-qualified attorneys.”