A 43-person coalition of top lawyers, legislators and nonprofit leaders in Maryland are pushing a raft of measures to help families get through the coronavirus pandemic, including raising court fees in an attempt to stop landlords who file “serial evictions.”
Led by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, the coalition also is recommending changes to state law to guarantee paid sick leave for part-time workers and directing state money to ensure poor families can get a lawyer.
Called the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, the members worked for six months to come up with ways to help Marylanders. They released their report Monday with 59 legislative and policy recommendations. The measures include:
- a ban on civil arrest warrants known as “body attachments” for consumer debt;
- bolstering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “Food Stamps,” to ensure participants receive at least $30 a month;
- requiring employers to offer paid leave to anyone in quarantine because of exposure to the coronavirus;
- establishing measures so people may submit court filings in Baltimore by email;
- increasing free legal services by mobilizing 500 new pro bono lawyers statewide.
These measures are intended to help poor and minority families who have suffered the worst of the hardships brought by the coronavirus, Frosh wrote in the 53-page report.
“These calamities fell most heavily on low-income persons, people of color, and those with disabilities,” Frosh wrote. “Already more vulnerable to any disruption in their lives, these communities have suffered higher rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths, unemployment, hunger, loss of housing, disparities in health care, and other challenges.”
About 300,000 people in Maryland have contracted the virus and more than 6,000 people died, according to state health statistics.
During a news conference Monday, Frosh called attention to the proposal raising fees for landlords to file for eviction. Frosh wants the General Assembly to raise the fees from $15 to about the national average of $120. The proposal also would block landlords from passing those higher fees on to tenants.
“These low filing fees cause landlords to engage in what we call ‘serial evictions,’” Frosh said.
Former federal judge and city solicitor Andre Davis, who helped lead the coalition, touted the proposal to cease arrests over consumer debt.
“This has echoes of medieval debt prisons,” Davis said.
Members of the coalition also sought to understand the devastating effects of the virus on Maryland families. They noted in their report that unemployment jumped from 3% in March to 10% in April as the outbreak arrived in the state.
Some 182,000 fewer Marylanders were working in October than in February of last year.
The report cites estimates from the Maryland Food Bank that a million Marylanders could go hungry, including 339,000 children. And it cites federal estimates that 160,000 to 240,000 renter households could risk eviction by the end of this month.
State statistics show deaths from drugs and alcohol increased 9% from last January to June when compared to the same months of 2019.