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New data tool highlights civil justice issues throughout Md.

The civil justice system is not data-informed. And so this tool was developed in response,” says Reena Shah, executive director of the Access to Justice Commission. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The civil justice system is not data-informed. And so this tool was developed in response,” says Reena Shah, executive director of the Access to Justice Commission. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

If you didn’t know that Dorchester, Washington and Baltimore counties have some of the state’s highest eviction rates, or that over half of St. Mary’s County households spend more than 35% of their income on rent, you’re not alone. Until recently, that data wasn’t collected in one place — instead, it was scattered across court records and databases.

That’s why the Maryland Access to Justice Commission felt the need to collect civil, or noncriminal, justice data in one easy-to-parse format. Over the past five months, the commission, with the assistance of some key volunteers, has collected this data and built a digital tool to help Marylanders navigate it.

Reena Shah, the organization’s executive director, hopes that making this data accessible will allow legislators, elected officials, advocates, news media, community leaders and the general public to gain a better understanding of civil justice in Maryland, including identifying problems within the system.

“When you (ask,) ‘where do we need to do the interventions? Where’s the greatest need?’ We don’t have data. The civil justice system is not data-informed. And so this tool was developed in response,” she said.

The tool, titled The Civil Justice for All Story Map, uses interactive maps and infographics to present civil justice data both statewide and by county. Data points presented in the map range from how many residents in each county use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to what percentage of residents fall into populations, like senior citizens or people of color, that are heavily impacted by civil justice issues.

Shah knew which key data points the map should identify from her years of working in the civil justice sphere, but the Maryland Access to Justice Commission also partnered with local advocates to ensure they hadn’t missed anything important. They modeled the story map’s format on similar projects in other states.

Several volunteers worked on the project, including Carolyn Lichtenstein, who helped to collect the data, and Kelli Yates, who worked on the data visualization element. Both women happened upon Shah’s call for volunteers while looking to find volunteer opportunities  amid the pandemic — Lichtenstein is retired and had had travel plans that were canceled due to COVID-19, and Yates was laid off in June.

“It’s been a very fulfilling experience to do this,” Yates said. “It was just a great opportunity to give back to the community.”

Though the Maryland Access to Justice Commission came up with the idea for this project prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 ended up becoming an important element of the story map, with multiple pages outlining the ways civil court proceedings changed from 2019 to 2020.

Some data points, like unemployment claims, skyrocketed due to the pandemic; others, such as evictions and failure to pay rent hearings, decreased in 2020 due to things like eviction moratoriums and rent relief programs.

Shah expects some of those numbers to change greatly once those programs end. An infographic within the story map warns that “the worst impacts related to court actions, however, will come during the latter part of 2021 or in 2022, when courts are fully functioning and relief programs conclude.”

Shah hopes that legislators and advocates will be able to use this tool when discussing solutions to civil justice problems in Maryland. As bills related to failure to pay rent filings, evictions, consumer debt and other civil justice issues pass through the General Assembly, it’s important for stakeholders to have accurate, accessible information on hand that can show who is being impacted by these issues, she said.

“A lot of times, we hear from legislators … (who) are like, ‘Well, this might be an urban issue. We don’t have that issue in rural areas,’” Shah said. “What we can see through our data is really that civil justice problems plague the entire state … those are some of the points that we really wanted to show through the data.”

Though she had little knowledge of civil justice prior to working on this project, Lichtenstein said that her main takeaway from digging up data for the story map is the same lesson the team wants its users to learn from it — that so many people, and so many facets of people’s lives, are impacted by civil justice.

“It’s not just Judge Judy and small claims court,” she said. “It’s huge.”

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