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Report on the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly

May 14, 2021

The stakes for the Maryland General Assembly are always high. The bills legislators pass (and fail to pass) have the power to make Marylanders’ lives better or worse, affecting their homes, jobs, education, health, safety, and more. The COVID-19 pandemic only intensified the urgency for lawmakers to act for economic justice and racial equity.

During the 2021 legislative session, we were proud to work with legislators and coalition partners to advocate for laws that will protect patients from harmful medical debt collection practices, reduce health inequities and maternal health disparities, provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction, establish an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers during the pandemic, improve job quality for home care workers, and take some initial steps to improve police accountability. We are also disappointed, however, that legislators did not take stronger action to ensure that essential workers can access paid sick leave, remove police from schools, provide emergency eviction protections, overhaul the eviction process, fully reform policing, or address bias and discrimination in the judiciary.

Below we share both victories and areas where the fight must continue. Thank you to everyone who advocates alongside us to build a just society!

Access to Health and Public Benefits

Workplace Justice

Housing Justice

Reimagining School Safety

Police Accountability

Race Equity

Prisoners’ Rights

Government Access and Accountability


Access to Health and Public Benefits

Strengthening Patient Protections

Medical Debt Protection Act (HB 565 / SB 514)

The Medical Debt Protection Act passed the Maryland General Assembly unanimously and is headed to the Governor’s desk. The bill is a strong foundation for protecting low-income Marylanders’ livelihoods, homes, and potential for intergenerational wealth transfer from harmful hospital medical debt collection practices. One of the strongest medical debt laws in the country, the bill includes provisions to relieve the burdens of medical debt on patients by prohibiting liens on homes and preventing wage garnishments of patients who qualify for free or reduced-cost care. It also makes provisions for income-based hospital payment plans and moves the system toward increased transparency by requiring hospitals to report certain aspects of legal actions on medical debt to the Health Services Cost Review Commission. PJC attorney Ashley Black worked with the coalition End Medical Debt Maryland and bill sponsors Delegate Lorig Charkoudian and Senator Brian Feldman to secure this victory. Thank you, all! Going forward, we will advocate for additional safeguards to ensure that people can access healthcare without worrying about the cost. Read more about how the bill will benefit Marylanders here.

Eliminating Health Inequities

Maryland Health Equity Resource Act (SB 172 / HB 463)

PJC attorney Ashley Black joined health advocates in securing passage of the Maryland Health Equity Resource Act. The bill will create and provide grant funding to Health Equity Resource Communities designed to reduce racial disparities in health outcomes and expand access to healthcare. Thank you to Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative and bill sponsors Delegate Erek Barron, Delegate Jazz Lewis, and Senator Antonio Hayes for leading the charge.

Prohibition on Vending Machine Sales of Drugs and Medicines – Repeal (HB 107 / SB 499)

The passage of HB 107 / SB 499 will repeal the ban on the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) medication in vending machines. Maryland was one of four states that still prohibited selling over-the-counter medication in vending machines. Many of Maryland’s pharmacy deserts are in communities with higher populations of low-income individuals and people of color, and OTC vending machines will ensure that Marylanders who live in a pharmacy desert or do not live near a 24-hour pharmacy have access to the medications they need when they need them. Thank you to bill sponsors Senator Clarence Lam and Delegate Robbyn Lewis for working with health advocates, including PJC attorney Ashley Black, to pass the bill.

Eliminating Maternal Health Disparities

Black women in Maryland die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women, regardless of income and education, and the gap is growing. Stress from racist insults and discrimination contributes to pregnancy-related complications and maternal mortality. Racial bias also leads healthcare providers to ignore Black women’s concerns and deliver a lower quality of care. To address these disparities, PJC attorney Ashley Black worked on the following bills to expand access to quality maternal health care.

Maryland Prenatal and Infant Care Grant Program Fund (SB 777 / HB 1349)

The Maryland Prenatal and Infant Care Grant Program Fund will provide grants to federally qualified health centers, hospitals and other prenatal care providers so that pregnant women who are uninsured and unable to access health insurance can access prenatal care. Thank you to bill sponsors Senator Sarah Elfreth and Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes for working with advocates, including Health Care for the Homeless, Marylanders Against Poverty and the Reproductive Health Equity Alliance of Maryland, to pass this important bill.

Maryland Medical Assistance Program – Eligibility (SB 923)

The 12 months following birth are the most dangerous time for a woman, as most maternal deaths occur within this window. SB 923 provides support during this time, extending Maryland Medicaid postpartum coverage for medical, dental and other health care services from 60 days to one year. The passage of this bill will help ensure that during the postpartum period, women are able to receive comprehensive care and do not suddenly lose insurance coverage. Thank you to Senator Mary Washington for championing this critical legislation. We are also thankful for our many allies who supported this bill, including Marylanders Against Poverty, Reproductive Health Equity Alliance of Maryland, Maryland Dental Action Coalition, American College of Nurse Midwives, Maryland Nurses Association, Advocates for Children and Youth and many others.

All of these bills now await the Governor’s signature.

Workplace Justice

Improving job quality for home care workers (SB 384 / HB 652)

All too often, home care agencies misclassify home care workers as independent contractors, denying them protections like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and saddling them with extra taxes. But the passage of SB 384 / HB 652 will help address this illegal practice, improving job quality for Maryland home care workers. The bill will create a guidance document to educate home care agencies about their legal responsibility to properly classify their employees and require agency owners to read and sign it every three years. Agencies will also have to indicate every three years whether any of their home care workers are classified as independent contractors. The bill also requires the state Departments of Labor and Health to report to House and Senate committees on steps they have taken to improve the quality of home care jobs. PJC attorney David Rodwin worked with sponsors Senator Delores Kelley and Delegate Lily Qi and a broad coalition to advocate for the legislation, which now heads to the Governor’s desk. Read more about the bill here.

Healthy Working Families Act Revisions (HB 1326 / SB 727)

Despite the critical need for paid sick days during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maryland General Assembly failed to fully address weaknesses in Maryland’s sick and safe leave law (the Healthy Working Families Act, HWFA). Over the past year, essential workers who cannot telework have faced high risk of exposure to illness, and exemptions in the HWFA deny many the right to earn sick leave. Front-facing public employees are also overwhelmingly Black, Latino, and other people of color, and are more likely to be the only source of income for their families, making sick leave protections all the more critical. PJC attorney Tyra Robinson and allies led advocacy to ensure that these workers can access paid sick leave during the pandemic and beyond. As introduced, HB 1326 / SB 727 would have strengthened the HWFA by adding a public health emergency section that would provide 14 paid sick days to eligible employees upon declaration of a public health emergency. The bill also would have removed exemptions in current law that exclude agricultural workers, temporary workers, and on-call health professionals (such as PRNs). Unfortunately, the bill was withdrawn, and more limited sick leave provisions were added to the Essential Workers Protection Act (see below).

We are grateful for the dedication of our many allies and supporters in the fight for paid sick leave, including bill sponsors Delegate Kathleen Dumais and Senator Brian Feldman, Marylanders for Food and Farmworker Protection, Job Opportunities Task Force, Family Values @ Work, Charm City Books, Flor Garay, March of Dimes, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Strong Futures Maryland, 1199 SEIU, Advocates for Children & Youth, CASA, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24, Maryland Center on Economic Policy, Maryland Legislative Coalition, Maryland State Education Association, Women’s Law Center of Maryland, Maryland State & DC AFL-CIO, United Workers, and public health colleagues Olivia Veira, AB; Madelyn McKeague, JD/MPH Candidate; Joshua Sharfstein, MD; Aisha Rivera, MD; Prashasti Batnagar, JD/MPH Candidate; Shatabdi Patel, MD; Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD, MPG; and Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH.

Essential Workers Protection Act (HB 581 / SB 486)

Workers across the state have shared horrific stories of having inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), having no opportunity to social distance, being required to come to work even with COVID-19 symptoms, and facing retaliation for requesting COVID-19 protections. With the passage of the Essential Workers Protection Act, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) must establish an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to provide regulations to protect workers during the pandemic. While lawmakers heavily amended the bill, the ETS does require employers to report positive COVID-19 cases to the Maryland Department of Health within 24 hours, let employees know when cases occur, and tell employees that they have a right to report workplace safety violations. The bill requires MOSH to report to the legislature by January how many workplace safety violation complaints it received, how many worksite inspections it conducted, and data on employer citations. The bill also helps ensure workers can access PPE and free COVID-19 testing and are aware that they have the right to refuse to perform dangerous work consistent with occupational safety and health protections. While the bill provides 14 days of paid sick leave to essential workers during a catastrophic health emergency, that time is only available if sick leave is funded by the state or federal government. Since legislators claim that such funding is not available, the bill’s sick leave provision is hollow. The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk.

Attorneys Tyra Robinson and Sally Dworak-Fisher led the PJC’s advocacy on the bill. Thanks to 1199SEIU for leading the charge for the Essential Workers Protection Act, Job Opportunities Task Force for being our ally in fighting for the sick leave provisions to be strong and meaningful, and Marylanders for Food and Farmworker Protection for pushing to get the ETS provisions passed. 

Housing Justice

As a member of the coalition Renters United Maryland, the Public Justice Center called on state legislators to pass the 2021 Housing Justice Package to address emergency needs of renters and homeowners during the pandemic and to overhaul Maryland’s massive eviction system. Below we share the results of a few of these bills. You can also read an overview of the bills Renters United Maryland worked on this year on the coalition’s website. PJC attorneys Zafar Shah and Matt Hill led the PJC’s advocacy on the Housing Justice Package. Thank you to our many partners for your advocacy for housing justice as part of Renters United Maryland. Critical housing bills were supported by a broad range of stakeholders beyond housing advocates, including Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center, Civil Advocacy Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Community Mediation Maryland, Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, Maryland Access to Justice Commission, Maryland Association of Counties, Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Taskforce, Maryland Legal Services Corporation, Maryland State Bar Association, National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Baltimore County Executive, and Tri Community Mediation.

Statewide right to counsel in evictions (HB 18)

With the passage of HB 18, the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) set a blueprint for providing free legal representation in evictions to all income-eligible tenants by 2025. The bill is currently pending before Governor Hogan. If it becomes law, HB 18 will also require landlords to send tenants a notice at least 10 days prior to filing an eviction complaint for past due rent. The pre-filing notice will provide tenants information about the rent purportedly past due as well as rights and resources.  HB 18 would make Maryland the second “right to counsel” in evictions state in the nation and provides a firm foundation to help level the imbalance of power in eviction proceedings. It will also allow Maryland to join the vast majority of states in requiring landlords to send a notice prior to filing an eviction complaint for failure to pay rent. Unfortunately, the MGA failed to adopt HB 31, which would have raised eviction filing fees from amongst the lowest in the nation as a way to both fund HB 18’s Access to Counsel program and curtail eviction filings. We will be working with supporters and sponsors on a sustainable funding mechanism for implementing HB 18 going forward. Thank you to Senator Shelly Hettleman, Delegate Wanika Fisher and Delegate Sandy Rosenberg for sponsoring the bill.

COVID-19 Eviction Relief Act of 2021 (HB 1312 / SB 910)

The MGA declined to heed repeated warnings from renter advocates of a coming eviction storm requiring emergency legislation and adjourned the 2021 session with no emergency action to protect renters. The MGA failed to pass the emergency HB 1312 / SB 910 that would have strengthened emergency protections for renters across the state and would have required landlords to utilize emergency rental assistance before they could initiate a lease non-renewal. The latter measure could have closed gaps in the Centers for Disease Control eviction “moratorium” and Governor Hogan’s Executive Order on evictions that have been allowing landlords to evict renters during the pandemic. Thank you to sponsors Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins and Senator Will Smith for championing the bill.

Eviction diversion and defense (HB 52 / SB 454)

HB 52 / SB 454 sought to prevent evictions by establishing an Eviction Diversion Program in eight district courts with the highest volumes of eviction cases in Maryland. The bill aimed to connect tenants with service providers at a critical moment: at court, at time of trial. The proposed reforms would have introduced a pre-trial hearing in the Failure to Pay Rent eviction process, in which both the tenant and the landlord could access eviction diversion resources such as mediation, rental assistance, and legal assistance. The bill would have provided tenants a continuance to access counsel, in furtherance of HB 18 (see above) and would have provided judges with discretion to order an emergency stay of eviction if the tenant showed evidence that eviction would endanger their life or health. An early version of the bill included the 10-day pre-filing notice for tenants that ultimately ended up in HB 18 (see above). Unfortunately, after passing the House, the bill did not receive a vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Thank you to bill sponsors Delegate Melissa Wells and Senator Charles Sydnor for your advocacy in support of the bill.

Reimagining School Safety

Counselors Not Cops Act (HB 496) and Police-Free Schools Act (HB 1089)

During the 2021 session, the Maryland General Assembly failed to take action to address the harmful impacts of school police and reimagine school safety.

Under a 2018 Maryland law, every public school must have either an on-site police officer or an “adequate law enforcement coverage plan” and mandates a $10 million/year state “School Resource Officer (SRO) fund” which districts use to finance and expand police presence in schools. Baltimore City Public Schools also has its own police force created by state law. Yet the evidence is clear that police presence makes schools less safe, not more, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities. 

PJC attorney Monisha Cherayil and the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability (MCJPA) led advocacy in support of HB 496 and HB 1089, measures to get police out of Maryland schools and invest in effective safety strategies. Both bills would have redirected the $10 million that the state designates for school police towards student mental health services, wraparound supports, and restorative approaches. HB 1089 also would have ended the failed and harmful SRO model in Maryland altogether by prohibiting police presence in schools and repealing the statute that created the Baltimore City Public Schools police force. Neither bill received a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee, despite supportive testimony from dozens of witnesses – including students, parents, and educators – from around the state. Instead, the House passed a bill that made superficial changes to SRO training, supervision, operations, and reporting that ultimately would do nothing to shift districts away from reliance on school police and towards implementation of effective safety measures. We opposed the weak House bill in the Senate, and it ultimately failed. Thank you to bill sponsors Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins and Delegate Gabriel Acevero for their dedicated advocacy and to the many people who testified in support of police-free schools. Join MCJPA’s town hall on May 25 from 6-8 pm to learn more about police reform efforts during the 2021 session, including the legislature’s failure to pass HB 496 and HB 1089.

Repeal of law that made “disruption” at school a crime (HB 700)

PJC attorney Renuka Rege provided oral testimony in support of HB 700, which aimed to repeal a statute that made it a crime to disrupt educational activities. The statute has been used to arrest children engaging in horseplay and other minor, developmentally-anticipated behaviors. The bill successfully passed the House in an amended form (which we supported), but it never received a vote in the Senate committee. Thank you to sponsor Delegate Sheila Ruth for championing the bill and our partner the Office of the Public Defender for leading advocacy in support.

Police Accountability

The PJC joined the 95+ members of the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability (MCJPA) to advocate for five legislative priorities necessary for meaningful police reform in Maryland: 1) Transparency into police misconduct investigations, 2) Repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) with real civilian oversight, 3) Limiting the use of force by law enforcement, 4) Transferring control of the Baltimore City Police Department to Baltimore City residents, and 5) Removing police from our children’s schools. The Maryland General Assembly passed several bills as part of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, which begins to address some of these priorities, but further action is needed to ensure that police are truly accountable to communities. A huge thank you to Yanet Amanuel and the rest of the policy staff at the ACLU of Maryland for leading MCJPA’s advocacy this year. Thank you also to our original bill sponsors (below) for dedication to meaningful reform. And to Maryland General Assembly leadership for your flexibility in incorporating many coalition and community demands in your bills. PJC attorney Monisha Cherayil led the coalition’s police-free schools advocacy and PJC Legal Director Debra Gardner provided support on the other four legislative priorities. Below we share a short summary of results adapted from the ACLU of Maryland. For a full debrief, join MCJPA’s town hall on May 25 from 6-8 pm.

Police Transparency – Anton’s Law (SB 178)

Anton’s Law amends the Maryland Public Information Act to allow public disclosure of records of police misconduct investigations. Named for 19-year-old Anton Black, who was killed by police in Greensboro, Maryland, Anton’s Law will allow communities to know whether their police departments are appropriately handling complaints of police abuse and punishing misconduct. Thank you to Senator Jill Carter, Delegate Gabriel Acevero, and Delegate Erek Barron for sponsoring Anton’s Law.

LEOBR Repeal (HB 670)

HB 670 repealed and replaced the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The legislation removed provisions like permissive expungements and the five-day grace period before an officer can be compelled to provide a statement after an incident. We continue to advocate for a truly independent civilian entity that can oversee and ensure police accountability to the communities they serve. Thank you to Speaker Adrienne Jones, and to our original sponsors Delegate Gabriel Acevero, and Senator Jill Carter.

Use of Force (SB 71)

SB 71 raises the legal standard to authorize force when it is necessary and proportional, based on the totality of the circumstances, to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury or effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective. It requires officers to attempt to de-escalate, intervene to prevent excessive force, and promptly obtain medical assistance for people injured in use of force incidents. Raising the legal standard is an important step to reduce police violence. Thank you to the members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee who co-sponsored the final result, led by Senator Charles Sydnor III and Chair Will Smith, and to our original sponsors, led by Delegate Debra Davis and Senator Jill Carter.

The General Assembly overrode Governor Hogan’s vetoes of SB 178, HB 670, and SB 71.

Local Control of Baltimore City’s Police Department (SB 786)

SB 786 creates a pathway to give Baltimore City control over its police department. The bill creates an advisory board to oversee the transition and make recommendations on the best method to effectuate the change. The Governor will allow the bill to become law without a signature. Voters will ultimately decide these questions in the next election by voting on a charter amendment on the ballot. Thank you to sponsors Senator Cory McCray and Delegate Melissa Wells.

Police-Free Schools (HB 496 and HB 1089)

See the description of the Counselors Not Cops Act (HB 496) and Police-Free Schools Act (HB 1089) in the Reimagining School Safety section above.

Race Equity

Judges, Community and Cultural Awareness Training (HB 950)

This year, the PJC’s Race Equity Team decided to expand external race equity work, including more policy advocacy, as part of the team’s latest workplan. One example of the team’s work was submitting testimony for HB 950. The bill would have required the State Court Administrator to ensure that each judge in Maryland receive annual anti-discrimination, antiracial bias, implicit bias, procedural justice, reconciliation technique, and antiblackness training to increase community and cultural awareness of all people who interact with the judicial system. Written by PJC attorney Tyra Robinson, PJC testimony included examples of bias and discrimination that various staff members have experienced or observed in the judicial system. Executive Director John Nethercut also delivered oral testimony. A few of the many common behaviors of non-Black judges described in testimony include:

While the bill did not pass, we share this testimony because the PJC and staff members of color feel it is important to keep a public record of the need to build a more equitable judiciary. Thank you to Delegate Alonzo Washington for elevating this issue and introducing this bill.

Prisoners’ Rights

Gender-Responsive Prerelease Act (2020 SB 684 / HB 801)

The Maryland General Assembly overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of the 2020 Gender-Responsive Prerelease Act, which requires a comprehensive rehabilitative prerelease facility for women incarcerated in Baltimore City. This facility is much-needed, as women have received very little job, education, housing, healthcare, mental health, and family-reunification support ever since lawmakers closed the former pre-release center for women several years ago. PJC Legal Director Debra Gardner played a supporting role in advocating for the veto override, including contributing a guest commentary in Maryland Matters. Thank you to Nicole Hanson-Mundell and Out for Justice, Monica Cooper and the Maryland Justice Project, and Beth Tomasello and the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club, all of whom led the advocacy on this bill and the override.

Government Access and Accountability

Equitable Access to Records Act (HB 183)

The Equitable Access to Records Act will require government agencies to proactively publish some public records and expands the jurisdiction of the Public Information Act (PIA) Compliance Board and the scope of the PIA Ombud’s mediation authority. The bill did not accomplish nearly what we had hoped, but the final version moves toward equitable access to public records. PJC Legal Director Debra Gardner has advocated for PIA reform for years and continues to do so, including fighting for the original scope of this bill. Thanks to PIA Ombud Lisa Kershner, Joanne Antoine and Common Cause Maryland, Joe Spielberger and ACLU of Maryland, Rebecca Snyder and the Maryland Delaware and DC Press Association, Marylanders for Open Government, and bill sponsors Delegate Brooke Lierman and Senator Cheryl Kagan for your work on the bill.