With the state of student loans, it is a good idea to look for any opportunities to help you pay off your loans. This is particularly true if you are working in criminal law locally. Those kinds of jobs certainly do not pay what a Biglaw firm pays, and often are behind what you would earn working as a federal prosecutor. The Department of Justice and state governments have acknowledged this to a certain degree through the creation of the John R. Justice (JRJ) grant program. The program seeks to provide education loan repayment assistance to individuals who agree to work at least three years as a full-time employee of a state as a public defender or prosecutor, typically in state office or a unit of local government. This article walks you through what the JRJ program is and how it compares to similar programs available.
What is the John R. Justice Loan repayment program?
The JRJ was formally established as part of the United States Code in 2010 as a way to help state criminal law agencies retain lawyers. People felt that law school graduates either would not go into criminal law or stay in it due to the financial pressures of their student loans.
The program is administered through the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). The program funds each state based on its population. The funding can be only administered to:
- State public defenders
- Full-time federal defender attorneys
- State prosecutors (not federal prosecutors)
- Attorneys who work for non-profits that have been contracted by the state to provide representation in criminal law
The Governor decides which specific state agencies and localities have eligible employees, and then those entities can apply for funding. Generally, working in these positions at any local government level, including tribal government, will allow you to qualify.
Given that the money is allocated to distribute among states, there is not a centralized way to apply. Instead, you need to find your state’s site for the application to the John R. Justice Grant. Many state attorney general offices will list the application process. But if you just Google “JRJ” and your state, information on how to apply should come up.
Beyond these provisions, the states have a free hand in terms of disbursing the funding to individuals. Typically the program will not provide funding for all of your repayments. For example, Illinois will give you up to $4,000 a year towards your loan repayments.
Some states take into account financial need, which is usually determined by your income. In some of the counties of California, state prosecutors and public defenders can make as much as $140,000, while others are going to make as little as $40,000. Here’s a guide to public defender salaries by state. Additionally, federal public defenders often make more than state public defenders. Of course some of the difference in payment is due to cost of living expenses. It is unclear how much that is factored in if at all.
Another factor subject to variation is how the John R. Justice program works for non-profit employees. As noted above, a full-time employee of a nonprofit organization that works with the state to expand representation can be eligible for the JRJ. Every state has nonprofits that provide further legal representation to criminal defendants in need, but not all work directly with the state. So it is best to reach out to the administrators of your state’s program to see if your position meets the eligibility requirement.
Moreover, some states, such as California, are not accepting new applications because they received too many applicants from previous years. Similarly, states offer varying award amounts. In Illinois, their maximum amount is $4,000 per year. Furthermore, since the total amount awarded varies depending on population, states will have different numbers of awards that they can give out.
Some states, such as Illinois, specifically stipulate that the allocation of available funds will be spread equally between defense attorneys and prosecutors as beneficiaries. Additionally, while you might think everything would be administered through the state attorney general’s office. In many states there is a separate office that oversees the public defenders. State John R. Justice prosecutors can be under other offices, such as the state Homeland Security office in West Virginia.
A few additional requirements
There are several other factors subject to variation. First, a state may require you to be a citizen. If it does not, you will of course still be required to have authorization to work in the US. You may also only have eligible educational loans if you took out federal student loans. Some states also require you to practice law “continuously”, so if you took time off for whatever reason, you might not be eligible. You are also not allowed to be in default of loans. Typically you also have to be a full-time employee. This is particularly important because some private criminal defense attorneys will contract with the state for additional clients.
If you have consolidation loans, that might impact whether you qualify. Similarly, if you took out Federal Perkins Loans or Graduate Plus Loans, they can affect your eligibility as well.
Ultimately when in doubt over whether your situation meets the specific criteria of your state, your state’s office should have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section for informational purposes. If consulting that does not work, try to reach someone in the office who can speak on these matters
How does the JRJ work with other programs?
While there are generally not enough loan assistance programs, other ones do exist. One is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, where if you work for 10 years in public service and continue to make your loan payments, the rest of your loans are forgiven by the federal government. So you may ask, “Well if I am going to do the PSLF, why should I care about the JRJ program?” Given that you have to make payments on your loans for 10 years under PSLF, the assistance of the JRJ might be helpful along the way.
Another program is if your law school has a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). Often such programs work similar to JRJ. You work in public service at a certain income level and you receive assistance in making payments towards your loans. These programs typically do not cover your total monthly loan payment, so in theory you could use both programs to help you make your loan payments.
So while you could technically combine the JRJ with other programs, there are some problems you may run into in terms of trying to combine it with something else. First, some states specifically say that you cannot qualify for the JRJ if you are receiving loan repayment assistance from another program. This would conflict with a law school’s LRAP, but it might not necessarily preclude combining with PSLF. Second, PSLF specifically is only open to students receiving federal loans. A lot of states have this requirement for JRJ as well, but there is at least a chance your state will not require it for JRJ.
What can you do beyond the JRJ program?
On top of exploring the options listed in this piece, you should also educate yourself on the types of loan repayment programs for your outstanding balance. Refinancing your loans for a lower rate is always worth considering. It is a good idea for you to review your higher education loan’s service agreement to make sure you are educated about what you owe. You should also think strategically about feasible ways to clear your student loan debt based on the resources available to you. If you are having issues getting a handle on how to make loan repayment plans, you should consider working with a student loan advisor.
Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He has also worked in digital media in New York City and Washington D.C. The views in his pieces are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer.