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Challenges forecast for Gwinnett's interpreter system

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Claudia Mendez Porter is read her oath before translating for a defendant serving in jail during a recent hearing at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. Budgetary concerns have court officials concerned over the high costs of interpreter services, which are guaranteed by the Constitution. Gwinnett interpreters say, meanwhile, that recent state laws and the activation of the 287(g) program are drying up their client base. 

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Claudia Mendez Porter is read her oath before translating for a defendant serving in jail during a recent hearing at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. Budgetary concerns have court officials concerned over the high costs of interpreter services, which are guaranteed by the Constitution. Gwinnett interpreters say, meanwhile, that recent state laws and the activation of the 287(g) program are drying up their client base. 

LAWRENCEVILLE -- In August 2009, Duluth police arrested a 27-year-old man they believed wouldn't take no for an answer from a girl too young to hold a driver's license. The girl said "no," and "stop," but his touching persisted, so the charges went.

The suspect was arrested that same day on charges of sexual battery and child molestation, charges a grand jury would later see fit for indictment. He spent 11 days in jail before posting $16,900 bond.

Earlier this year, as the case inched toward a courtroom, the suspect's attorney filed a motion for an English translator. While court documents indicate the suspect spoke passable English, his native tongue was Kosraean, a Micronesian language spoken by less than 8,000 people. The ensuing search pointed Gwinnett officials to only one qualified interpreter -- who lived some 2,300 miles away in the state of Washington.

The case was eventually dismissed in June for lack of evidence, but it demonstrated a compounding dilemma the local court system has been faced with for more than a decade -- how to keep financial and logistical pace with the need for Constitutionally mandated interpreter services, a right for all non-English speaking crime suspects.

In a rapidly diversifying county where minorities have nudged into the majority, Gwinnett's criminal courts handled more than 2,300 cases requiring interpreters in 2010 -- including 449 separate requests for interpreters speaking languages other than Spanish.

Officials said Spanish is the most interpreted language in Gwinnett, followed by Korean and Vietnamese. All told, court officials fielded requests last year for interpreters of 32 different languages -- at hourly rates between $40 and $50.

"In criminal cases, there is a non-waivable, Constitutional requirement that defendants understand the nature and content of proceedings," said Phil Boudewyns, court administrator for the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit, whose office oversees the interpreter program. "Taxpayers do cover 100 percent of those costs."

On the heels of a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that took effect in May -- one that extends the right to qualified interpreters to parties in civil cases -- court officials have worried the financial wallop could wreak havoc on the already cash-strapped courts.

"We've gone about as far as we can go without ruining some pretty good services," Superior Court Judge Tom Davis warned Gwinnett County Commissioners during a recent meeting.

Further cutbacks due to the cost of interpreter services and major trials could jeopardize proven programs like DUI and Drug courts, Davis said.

Boudewyns said the impact of funding interpreters in all appropriate civil cases remains to be seen.

"The primary challenge posed by this new rule is budgetary," he said. "Another challenge that may occur is a lack of qualified interpreters."

Claudia Mendez Porter, a Spanish Certified Court Interpreter who's worked regularly in Gwinnett for three years, said she's been called to handle only two civil cases since May -- a child custody dispute and divorce case. Parties in civil cases are mostly hiring interpreters themselves, and interpreters have been appointed only in "extreme situations," she said.

Funding for Gwinnett courts has been decreased by $900,000 -- or 7.4 percent -- between 2009 and the proposed budget for 2012. Among other cuts, $60 hourly rates for certified interpreters were cut by $10 to $20, depending on whether services were provided in or out of court, Boudewyns said.

Porter, the interpreter, said the rate cut in Gwinnett has hurt, but she's grateful for employment when she can get it. Interpreters' hourly rates had bread animosity among the general public in the past, she said.

"A lot of people feel hostile sometimes toward interpreters, because there's a misconception that we are so highly paid," Porter said. "Sometimes we go to the courthouse for an hour, and that's all we get paid for, that hour. If the rates were not high, there would be no good interpreters."

Decreased need?

Data suggests the number of Gwinnett criminal cases requiring interpreters peaked in 2008, the year before Gwinnett became the largest of four Georgia counties to participate in the 287 (g) program, which authorizes local law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings on arrestees. The gradual downward trend continued last year (38 fewer cases than 2009).

In its fist year, 287 (g) accounted for a 28 percent drop in the total number of foreign-born jail bookings -- or 4,289 fewer inmates compared to the prior year. Whether that was indicative of a nervous exodus of illegal immigrants, showed that those already here were being more cautious, or proved that many had fled due to Recession-related unemployment could not be determined, officials have said.

The county's 2010 cost for interpreter services ($543,090) has fallen below 2006 levels, following the cut in interpreter pay. But those costs have also been trending down since 2008.

Porter believes the impetus for the downturn in interpreter cases can be linked to programs like 287 (g) and Georgia's law discouraging illegal immigration that took effect in July.

"From a year or two until today it has decreased tremendously, to the point that many interpreters are having to look for a steady job elsewhere," Porter said. "(Illegal immigrants) are afraid and therefore they have been leaving ... they are afraid they'll be deported and children will left behind with no support."

A broader perspective on interpreters' plight was not available this week. Officials with the Georgia Commission on Interpreters -- a panel of 20 judges, lawyers, academics, interpreters and legislators established to protect the rights of non-English speaking people -- did not return requests for comment.

Regardless of politics, Porter said the rights of defendants to clearly understand court proceedings is vital.

"The need for an interpreter -- which, by the way, is one of the most ancient professions in the world -- it's completely necessary to be able to function in the justice system," she said.