As part of his new budget, President Donald Trump is threatening to cut the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Started in 2007, the program enables those pursuing careers as public defenders, social workers, teachers and doctors to become eligible for student loan debt relief. The stipulations are clear: You must work for the government or a nonprofit and pay off loans on time for 120 months. After 10 years of paying, your remaining debt will be forgiven. Education Department officials have said that these budget cuts would not affect those currently in the program, but those who hoped to take advantage of the program are left in the lurch, wondering whether they will need to change their plans.
Critics of loan forgiveness point to the cost as the program’s main problem. Cutting it would save $27.5 billion over the course of a decade—not an insignificant number by any metric. On one hand, programs such as these are probably not an essential government function. But loan forgiveness is a small step toward fixing greater systemic problems—most notably the shortage of public defenders.
Teaching, social work and medical services are all important, but the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to a fair trial. Therefore, a system of public defenders for those who cannot afford legal counsel is an essential government function.
If we fail to provide adequate defense, we fail to provide our most basic constitutional guarantees.
We pretend to have trial by jury, where even the poorest among us can work with lawyers to argue their case, but this nominal commitment rarely plays out in practice. In fact, it’s such a problem that the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in early 2016, arguing that lack of adequate public defense is a violation of their clients’ Sixth Amendment rights. In an unsettling loss, a Louisiana federal judge dismissed this case a few months ago. But this isn’t just limited to Louisiana, which has a notoriously-dysfunctional criminal justice system and the highest prison population per capita in the U.S. The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits in Missouri, Washington and Idaho in the last two years alone, arguing that lack of proper indigent defense violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights.
It’s not just lack of resources that plagues public defenders’ offices, but lack of time. When lawyers are overloaded with cases, the amount of time they can devote to each person is reduced. This raises the question: Does it even count as adequate legal defense if it’s low quality? In a country with such a complex legal code and court process, are we really seeking the bare minimum of counsel for the poor or more meaningful protections?
Just last year, The Marshall Project reported that Kentucky public defenders take on about 54 percent more cases than national standards advise. Missouri’s program has lost more than two dozen staff members over the past three years, but it has significantly increased case load. Even Last Week Tonight host John Oliver ridiculed the degree to which we fail to provide good indigent defense to those who need it most.
Cutting loan forgiveness for public defenders would mean one of two things: Either they would pursue work at private law firms, which would provide them with bigger salaries necessary for offsetting the cost of a law degree, or they would still go into public service and be faced with crippling debt in addition to a cumbersome workload. Any sane person would see little reason to choose the latter—especially as college costs skyrocket.
Although conservatives are usually correct when it comes to the necessity of budget cuts, our overburdened criminal justice system can’t afford this loss. Expensive government programs are rarely the solution, but this one fills an important gap. It’s not overly-moralistic either, like tax credits that incentivize saving for retirement, buying a house or having children, making it popular among people of all political stripes. It attempts to fulfill constitutional guarantees for those who need legal protection the most and can afford it the least.
After all, the criminal justice system is plagued by immense prosecutorial discretion, prison overcrowding, police misconduct that often goes unpunished, and tons of suspicious practices every step of the way. The least we can do before turning people over to the system’s dubious mercies is give them a truly fair trial. Just because one is accused doesn’t mean they’re guilty. Public defenders help us tell the difference.
At their core, government-created incentives meddle in the marketplace, but given the structural flaws of our criminal justice system, loan forgiveness in particular creates incentives for talented people to serve those who need help the most. Without their work, our constitutional protections become a hollow promise. If the criminal justice system is providing different outcomes for the poor compared to the rich, it’s not dispensing justice. Any safeguard against such injustice should be considered more seriously before it’s axed.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. She writes about criminal justice, homelessness and libertarianism from Austin, Texas. You can follow her on Twitter: @lizzywol.