Ohio bill would help rural lawyers repay student loans

The Ohio House of Representatives wants to spend $3 million the next two fiscal years to help rural lawyers pay off their student loans.

The Rural Practice Incentive Program, passed by the House, would reduce the student loan debt on prosecutors and public defenders in most rural Ohio communities. The $3 million, according to the Ohio Legislative Commission, would be set aside for the first two years, and the overall cost would be determined by the number of participants in the program.

The funds would come from the state general fund.

The bipartisan bill, introduced nearly two years ago, now heads to the Senate as the General Assembly works in lame duck session before ending the two-year term in December.

“A criminal justice system is only as strong as the people who work in it,” said Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus. “In order to make our criminal justice system be what we all want it to be, we have to be able to attract the best and the brightest to both sides of a case.”

As currently written, the legislation would allow eligible prosecutors and public defenders in underserved communities to apply for state loan repayment assistance, as long as they are not enrolled in another forgiveness program.

The bill defines an underserved community as a county with more than 700 residents per attorney in that county. Based on 2019 estimates from the Ohio Bar Association, 59 of the state’s 88 counties are in that category.

The program, according to Leland, requires a three-year service obligation with a $30,000 state payout for the lawyer. Attorneys possibly could get a one- or two-year extension to gain another $20,000.

Rep. Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, said the bill would help combat a public defender and prosecutor shortage in the state.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing less and less young lawyers working as public defenders and prosecutors,” Hillyer said. “This bill simply offers them a strong incentive to serve the public. Public defenders and prosecutors are civil servants and should be treated as such.”

A similar bill passed the House in the last General Assembly session but stalled in the Senate.

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