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The Maryland Access to Justice Commission and its newly renamed Public Interest Law Committee (PILC) (formerly Delivery of Legal Services Committee) recently held a legislative preview via Zoom, in advance of Maryland’s upcoming legislative session. This was the access to justice community’s first legislative preview that brought together over 15 civil legal aid and adjacent organizations to share their legislative priorities for the upcoming session. “It was impressive the breadth and shear scope of issues the access to justice community works on in Maryland and beyond direct representation, the impact they have on improving the lives of Marylanders. It was nice to bring it all together in one place and form community around it,” said Reena Shah, Executive Director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.

During the discussion, moderated by Zafar Shah, Esq., co-chair of PILC and an attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, the Committee discussed legislative priorities that legal services, public interest, and justice-minded organizations will be working on during the 2024 legislative session, or monitoring on behalf of their clients. 

The 15 or so participating organizations addressed a wide range of topics, as discussed below. 

Funding of Civil Legal Services

The Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) is taking a two-pronged approach to funding for civil legal services this session: they’re asking the governor for $8 million out of his operating budget to help MLSC reach salary parity within the legal services organizations. To the extent they don’t get all that funding, they’re asking the legislature to make up for that amount. Further, MLSC and Access to Justice Commission will be working to secure an additional $6M in ACE funding for FY2025. 

Housing Security

The Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) has a particular interest this year in funding for emergency rental assistance. Their overarching goals are to preserve homeownership for low-income families, most of whom are black and brown families in Baltimore City, as they believe that preserving these homes as equity passes helps preserve intergenerational wealth. PBRC’s priorities this session are bills related to tax sale prevention, the homeowner’s property tax credit, and estate administration. 

CASA intends to focus on  two bills related to renters’ rights in Maryland. The first is a local enabling bill that aims to establish just cause laws at the local level, requiring landlords to have a reason for eviction. The second bill, the Tenant Safety Act, focuses on providing remedies for renters facing severe living conditions and making the process more accessible, especially for low-income and non-English speakers.

Maryland Legal Aid discussed the Tenant Possessions Recovery Act, which proposes a 14-day notice and a 10-day reclamation period for tenants facing eviction. Additionally, they talked about emergency rental assistance tied to the education budget as a means of linking housing stability to educational stability.

Economic Security

Maryland Legal Aid is supporting proposed bills related to preserving homeownership through a Maryland homestead exemption and overhauling the process of suspending the licenses of individuals with child support arrears.

Economic Action Maryland is working on bills related to wage garnishment adjustments, changes in medical debt policies, and securing economic resources for older adults. They also hope to extend the efficacy of the federal Community Reinvestment Act by working with state financial institutions to sort of galvanize new investments in local communities and create partnerships with neighborhood leaders. 

Job Opportunities Task Force intends to support a bill being reintroduced this year that focuses on preventing the suspension of driver’s licenses of individuals who make under 250% of the federal poverty level, which is roughly $37,000.

Immigration

CASA talked about the Health Care Access Act, which aims to open access to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the state body providing insurance with subsidies, for all immigrants regardless of their immigration status. The bill passed in the House last year, and they are optimistic about its progression in the current legislative session.

Vulnerable Populations

The House of Ruth Maryland highlighted two bills related to domestic violence. The first bill focuses on increasing funding for domestic violence service providers, particularly through the Maryland domestic violence programs and the domestic violence centers grant programs. The second bill aims to create a mechanism to notify domestic violence survivors if their abusive partners apply for a firearm and fail the background check, emphasizing a public safety perspective.

FreeState Justice, which provides legal services to LGBTQIA Marylanders, discussed three bills related to LGBTQIA rights. The first bill addresses the gap created by the Maryland Supreme Court’s decision in the John Doe v. CRS case, aiming to comprehensively update anti-discrimination provisions inconsistent with Bostock v. Clayton County. The second bill focuses on creating a correctional ombudsman to oversee Maryland prisons, addressing the lack of oversight hindering LGBTQ-specific protections. The third bill involves HIV decriminalization, targeting the only specifically criminalized infectious disease under Maryland law.

Job Opportunities Task Force is working on a bill related to expanding digital literacy for incarcerated populations. The legislation aims to update digital literacy curriculum guidelines for specific programs, recognizing the importance of keeping incarcerated individuals informed about technological advancements during their time in prison.

Expungement

Job Opportunities Task Force discussed three priorities related to expungement laws in Maryland. The first priority involves addressing the impact of the Abhishek ruling, which prevents individuals from expunging underlying offenses if they complete probation or supervision unsatisfactorily. The second priority is to eliminate the requirement of paying fines and fees for expungement, as it is seen as criminalizing poverty. The third priority is to eliminate the $30 fee for expungement, particularly for indigent individuals, to remove barriers to justice. The mention of ongoing auto-expungement experiments with cannabis is highlighted as a positive step. 

MVLS shared that it authored a memo in conjunction with the Human Trafficking Prevention Project, providing guidance to attorneys on expungement cases, particularly related to the Abhishek ruling, and emphasized the importance of supporting individuals facing probation violations related to cannabis after incarceration.

Public Benefits

Maryland Legal Aid touched on three areas within public benefits that focus on vulnerable populations. First, they emphasized the need for the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the state of Maryland to be mandated to apply for any and all public benefits that children are eligible for immediately upon eligibility. This is particularly crucial for children, including those entitled to Social Security, as their caretakers may not always apply for these benefits on their behalf.

The second area addresses survivors of domestic violence through a victim’s assistance program. The current system in Maryland requires victims to file a criminal case to access victim assistance, which may not always be provided or is inadequately offered. Recognizing that many survivors may be hesitant or afraid to involve the police, the speaker advocates for cash assistance availability based solely on the filing of a civil protective order. This approach aims to provide financial support without requiring involvement in the carceral system.

The third area focuses on the challenges posed by public portals, such as Beacon MD Cash and MD Think. Attorneys face restrictions in accessing these portals, hindering their ability to assist clients in tracking hearings and other critical information. The speaker advocates for a simple fix to grant attorneys access to these portals, ensuring effective communication and representation for clients who may lack access to computers or phones.

The 2024 session of the Maryland General Assembly convened on January 10, 2024.