Ohio bill would reimburse tuition for public defenders to fight shortage

Updated: Jan. 21, 2020 at 8:03 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - A shortage of public defenders in Ohio’s courtrooms could cost taxpayers and the people they’re representing if a solution isn’t found soon.

19 News found state lawmakers are considering paying back law school tuition to try to change that.

The goal of Ohio House Bill 5 is to recruit public defense attorneys and keep them once they’re here.

High turnover is becoming pretty costly to the state and could slow down court cases, according to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

“We’re having a hard time with public defenders staying on the job, and almost all of them universally report they’re leaving for more money,” said Tim Young, director of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

19 News spoke to him from Columbus over Skype.

He said a new study found the highest cost they're seeing in the judicial system is turnover.

Public defenders across the state served as legal counsel in 280,828 cases in Fiscal Year 2017 alone.

“The cost of retraining, the cost of absences to the justice system in terms of the lost knowledge base, is one of the most significant costs that we have in our justice system,” Young said.

But a new state bill could help.

Attorneys who become public defenders in Ohio could get some help paying law school back, up to $85,000 for five years of service.

The average law student in our state graduates with more than $98,000 of debt.

Ohio already has similar programs for doctors and dentists, encouraging them to practice in under-served areas.

“We have a lot of kids who leave home from a rural area, go to law school and then never go back. Even though they might want to but there's no market for them there,” Young said.

About 75 percent of adult defendants in criminal cases qualify for a public defender.

“I think it fundamentally impacts justice. If you have lawyers who are leaving after two or three years, one you don't have a deep knowledge base,” Young said.

The state bill passed the Ohio House last summer.

It will go to another hearing in the Senate Finance Committee before lawmakers can vote it out of committee.

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