As Maryland’s courts reopen, Attorney General Brian Frosh has formed a COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force to deal with preexisting racial inequities within the health care and justice systems, which are poised to be exacerbated by the ongoing public health crisis.
In an online news conference, Frosh said economic hardship caused by business closures and COVID-19 have created conflicts that are handled in the civil justice system, including evictions, disputes over medical or consumer debt, and people being wrongfully denied public benefits.
“As courts reopen, we expect to see a huge spike in civil legal court cases, about evictions and consumer debt,” said Reena Shah, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission and a leader in Frosh’s task force.
“We know that Marylanders lose their civil cases and, therefore, get evicted, have their wages garnished, do not receive lifelines like food stamps or unemployment benefits, not because they did anything wrong, but because they did not have the legal information or help they needed,” Shah said. “And this already happened before COVID-19 hit.”
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A recent study showed the number of evictions of black women was almost three times the number of white men evicted in Baltimore City, Shah said.
“We have a terrible situation in this country, where because people couldn’t pay some small portion of the rent, they could be out on the streets through eviction,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “You get a parking ticket and are not able to pay it because you’re stretched thin, and all of a sudden, you may be losing your license.”
Frosh said ensuring the civil justice system is accessible, fair and equitable would go a long way toward protecting public health, spurring economic recovery and growth, and reducing harms to the most vulnerable in the community.
“This pattern of effectively criminalizing poverty has got to stop,” Van Hollen added.