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In America today, practically in the shadow of the nation's capital, it's hard to accept that discrimination still exists, and still limits people's opportunities to make their own way. The Prince George's County Human Relations Commission investigates complaints of discrimination against 13 separate protected classes of people, and provides a nonjudicial forum in which to award damages and charge fines against those whose discriminatory acts impacted other people. Every county has its own standards, and not all protect the same classes of people. Prince George's County's Human Relations Commission protects against discrimination and monitors hate crimes based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, age, occupation, marital status, political opinion, personal appearance, sexual orientation, disability and familial status.

The HRC has a paid staff of one office manager and eight investigators, who provide the details of the case to members of a board of 13 commissioners who hear the cases and decide their merits. The HRC's annual budget of just under one million dollars is derived from taxpayer funding. This year a Civil Rights Fellow has been added as a volunteer as well.

Discrimination is not always as clear-cut as it once was. You won't see employment ads specifying that only people of a certain race, religion or gender may apply. It's not legal to shepherd all the nonwhite homebuyers into certain neighborhoods. But there are many different people trying to occupy the same area, often bringing their biases with them. Discrimination in housing and in financial lending are the two biggest issues in the county, said Human Relations Commission Executive Director D. Michael Lyles.

In a diverse community like Prince George's County, there's not one group trying to discriminate against just one other group. There are many different ethnic, cultural and racial groups from all over the world living here, some coming from countries where the government is an entity more to be feared than trusted. That attitude can make working in the community a challenge.

"We have to explain, this is a government agency that actually protects you. You won't be retaliated against for complaining about a government agency. Everything you say is confidential," Lyles said. "We're not finding as much success as I'd like, but we have found some."

Things can get complicated, fragmented and confusing. That's why the commission's investigators talk their clients through the process.

"You don't need to know the legal language or bring an attorney. If something doesn't feel right, come talk to us, and we'll investigate," Lyles said. The team includes several Spanish-speaking investigators, and provides written materials in both English and Spanish.

People who live, work or recreate in Prince George's County and who feel they may have been illegally discriminated against can bring their concerns to the investigators and file a series of statements about what happened. Those become a charging document. The respondent accused of discrimination then provides information from their own vantage point.

"If there are some grounds, we initiate an independent, unbiased investigation," Lyles said. Within 180 days, the case is either closed or set to go to a hearing on the civil violation of the law.

At that hearing, evidence is presented by both sides. Lyles represents the complainant and the county; the respondent is free to bring a representative or attorney to the hearing as well. If the complaint is found to have been an actual case of discrimination, the board can impose fines of up to $5,000 and civil penalties and damages for emotional distress and financial losses up to $100,000.

Until recently, those dollar amounts had not been reviewed in about ten years. Recent legislation aims to double the dollar amounts, to maintain their "deterrent effect," Lyles said. "It sets the tone that we are looking, and we are serious."

That tone is a relatively new part of the commission. When Lyles took over as executive director in 2011, there was a heavy backlog of case. Some cases were still unresolved as much as seven and a half years after the first complaint was lodged. There was little oversight of how cases were managed, and some languished without any attention at all because of staffing changes and other disruptions. Lyles trained his staff to use the force and authority of the law to go see the people involved in each case, question them and subpoena them if needed.

"Seven and a half years is just tragic and there's no excuse for it," Lyles said. "I spent a lot of my time those first few months going around apologizing to people."

Since many cases are based on interpretations and subtle acts, they can be especially time-sensitive to prosecute. In the past, respondents could delay the process by just ignoring requests from the HRC. Lyles helped his team realize that they had the power to bring justice to the community, if they used it while the events were fresh in everyone's memories, instead of patiently waiting for a recalcitrant respondent to willingly provide information.

"Set the court date and they show up. It protects the integrity of the process," Lyles said. "Case closure, investigative closure is where we are trying to get to. Anything older than a year is harder to win."

He also launched a complete overhaul of the HRC's process, hired new staff and retrained others, instituted standards which required that each case be resolved within 180 days and started holding regular meetings to discuss challenging cases as a team. After 12 months, the backlog was eliminated and incoming cases were being handled more efficiently.

"The past year was probably our best year in moving through the system," Lyles said. "We processed 350 cases, 172 of which had been in backlog status. Once I trained them on how to get through the backlog, they were able to apply that training to incoming cases."

The commission also investigates and enforces federal discrimination laws related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991, the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, all through a work-sharing agreement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"We'd like to get the facts to support future cases, reduce bad conduct and improve our county's economy," said Lyles. "Discrimination costs, and it's a cost we all pay."

For more information visit www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/civilrights.