The Nov. 18 Hearsay column [Business], about how law students' debts discourage public service, helps explain one piece of a serious problem in our criminal justice system: the often inadequate representation of people who are accused of a crime but cannot afford an attorney.

Public defenders are generally paid very low salaries, causing the same recruiting and retention problems that the column highlighted. Most public defenders also are compensated at a lower rate than their counterparts in the prosecutor's office, even though a fair justice system requires balanced advocacy and resources.

Not only are public defenders fighting a better-funded opposition, they are burdened with huge caseloads and a lack of basic resources. Couple these systemic problems with staff turnover caused by low salaries and high educational debt and even the most effective public defender organizations will find it hard to provide quality representation.

The proposed Innocence Protection Act, which has bipartisan support in Congress, would address this crisis by providing student loan forgiveness to lawyers who serve as public defenders for a required number of years. Additionally, it would help fund state efforts to improve the quality of representation in death penalty cases.

The Innocence Protection Act will be reintroduced in the next Congress. I hope the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), will allow it to move forward. Ensuring competent defense counsel is a goal everyone should support.



National Association of

Criminal Defense Lawyers

New York