Maryland Voices for Justice

A monthly series of curated access to justice stories

Civil justice stories are not well known. The Maryland Access to Justice Commission is proud to launch a new project entitled Maryland Voices for Justice that will work to amplify stories related to the civil justice system.  The A2J Dispatch will bring you curated content on critical civil justice stories from Maryland and beyond on a monthly basis.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find inside:

When Crownsville resident Tim Howell lost his job in the pandemic, unemployment benefits became his lifeline – until they suddenly and mysteriously halted. 

After hundreds of phone calls and three months without benefits, he called Maryland Legal Aid. Legal Aid was able to speak to leadership in the state office and get his benefits reinstated. Howell’s story underscores the critical role of counsel for low-income individuals in the civil justice system – just one of the issues addressed in a press conference hosted by MSBA last week for the Access to Justice Commission and the Attorney General’s Office, to discuss access to counsel and other recommendations of the COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force fared in the recently-concluded legislative session. 

To watch the press conference video, click here. For more facts, figures, and human stories related to the issues addressed, check out A2J’s story map.

Maryland is poised to offer tenants access to counsel. That milestone depends, however, on Governor Hogan signing the bill. To watch the video, click here. For more facts, figures, and human stories related to the issues addressed, check out A2J’s story map.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

On college campuses, students have expressed fear to report sexual assaults that occurred at gatherings held in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. Title IX should protect victims from any disciplinary action when reporting sexual assault, but students appear either mistrustful of the exception or simply uninformed of their rights. Even administrators have confessed they don’t believe Title IX’s amnesty protection  “completely eliminates the barrier that the [campus] code places on someone who might be trying to report.” For these reasons, Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) is urging Maryland schools to adapt “sexual assault initiatives and programs that may have been curtailed by the pandemic.” Read more: College Survivors & Covid-19  

Access to safe, affordable housing is an essential component of helping survivors, and Baltimore County’s new Housing Department aims to do just that. The department will oversee the county’s “housing stability efforts, such as eviction and foreclosure prevention, tenant counseling, legal services, and benefits navigation support.” Read more: Baltimore County To Create First Housing Department

A 2020 Harvard University study indicated that sexual assault rates rise during public states of emergency, yet many crisis hotlines have been quieter during the pandemic. Is that “because there’s a lower amount of sexual assaults happening?” one Pennsylvania victim advocate pondered. “My gut tells me no.” Fear of COVID-19 has dissuaded many sexual assault victims from visiting the hospital for a forensic exam and seeking contact with those who might help. “It’s heartbreaking to know people are probably in really dire situations and don’t feel safe enough to reach out for support or help.” Read more:  SA Reporting Fears & Trends During COVID-19

Meanwhile, persons at risk of eviction may have more than homelessness to fear. A New Jersey landlord faces sexual assault charges after coercing tenants who were behind on their rent to perform sexual acts with him in order to avoid eviction – and retaliating against those who refused. The landlord also faces a federal lawsuit for violating the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against sexual harassment. Read more:  Unsafe Housing: NJ Landlord Charged With Sexual Assault and Violation of Fair Housing Laws.

“When rape crisis centers are underfunded, they can’t meet the needs of sexual assault survivors, and prevention programs are sidelined.” The 2021 American Rescue Act, signed into law last month, provided desperately needed funds to assist struggling sexual assault and domestic violence service agencies. In addition to specifically making nearly $200 million in grants available to rape crisis centers, many other provisions assist survivors as well. For instance, “researchers have found a relationship between direct cash payment programs” – such as stimulus checks – “and reducing the risk of sexual and intimate partner violence.” Read more: The American Rescue Plan & Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Prevention

And in other Access To Justice news:

States can and should consider race in vaccine distribution, argue several health organizations. Although racial disparities have been noted in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, tragically, vaccinations are being dispensed more slowly among Black, Latino, and Indigenous populations.

Federal law offers student loan forgiveness to borrowers with a medical impairment that inhibits substantial, gainful employment – but few borrowers know this relief exists. Now, advocates have petitioned the Biden administration to provide better information about and access to this valuable assistance.

Historic eviction bans and billions in rental relief kept tens of millions of people housed during the pandemic. Successful policies stemmed from decades of research, organizing, and other groundwork laid by dedicated affordable housing and homelessness prevention advocates.