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Delaware public attorneys could see both state- and federal-level student loan relief

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

President Biden’s federal student loan relief plan could ease pressure on Delaware’s public defenders and prosecuting attorneys shortly before a new state law offering public attorneys loan repayment support takes effect.

Erika LaCon, an attorney with Delaware’s Office of Defense Services, says one incentive to join the office was a federal program offering loan forgiveness to public employees after 10 years – an incentive that helps account for the lower salaries of public defenders and prosecuting attorneys relative to their private sector counterparts.

But LaCon says that enrolling in the public service loan forgiveness program hasn’t gone smoothly.

“The first year, year-and-a-half, they put me in the wrong plan, so I was paying more than I needed to," she said. "And I was at the whim of whatever they told me to do to get the public student loan forgiveness.”

The new federal student loan relief package includes measures to streamline the public service loan forgiveness program, addressing some of the implementation failures and credit errors that LaCon and other public defenders experienced.

LaCon also notes that while the federal package also offers $10,000 in loan relief to most borrowers, that’s less significant to public defenders than changes to income-based repayment plans — cutting the amount that borrowers have to repay from 10 percent to 5 percent of their discretionary income.

“The income-driven repayment plan, or the change, would make a huge difference in my monthly budget," she said. "The $10,000 doesn’t make a huge difference for people enrolled in public interest student loan forgiveness, because if it gets forgiven in 10 years, it doesn’t matter what that principle is."

Meanwhile, a new Delaware law passed this year will allow attorneys with the Office of Defense Services or the Delaware Department of Justice to apply to have the state cover a portion of their loan repayments. It offers up to $5,000 in loan assistance per year for 10 years, though it includes a $110,000 salary cap. The state program a part of efforts to recruit and retain attorneys in both state offices. It still awaits Gov. John Carney’s signature.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.