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The Connecticut Judicial Branch has launched a major program to quantify the need for, and use of, courtroom interpreters — eight years after a task force on minority issues documented how the number of translators on call was so lacking that some state courts, in desperation, relied on janitors to aid non-English speaking litigants. The pilot program began April 1 in the New Haven Judicial District. Eventually, the tracking system of interpreter usage is expected to be used statewide. Judicial Branch officials said they want to use information gathered during the pilot program to analyze how many interpreters are needed, during what times and in which courthouses. Advocates for improvements in interpreter services said they hope the program will address their concerns over the quantity of interpreters available in the court system. Federal courts have ruled that an interpreter is a fundamental part of a defendant’s right to counsel, and state procedures require a state-approved interpreter in criminal cases. But the Judicial Branch’s own research shows that too often court officials seek anyone they can find — from family members to courtroom spectators. It was in 1996 that the Judicial Branch’s Task Force on Minority Fairness documented the use of courthouse janitors pressed into service as interpreters — anything to keep cases moving through the system, the report concluded. Since then, Judicial Branch officials assert they have done a better job of ensuring interpreters in criminal cases, but they admit they are stretched thin by budget limitations. Proposals for expanding the court system’s interpreters program have been debated by the legislature for several years, but the issue rarely makes it to the floor for a vote. “Invariably, [legislators] say, ‘If we do it for one [language], we have to do it for all and we can’t afford that,’” said Werner Oyanadel, legislative analyst for the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, which is charged with identifying and advocating solutions to issues facing Connecticut’s Hispanic population. But no other group of non-English speakers, Oyanadel argued, is near the size of the Spanish-speaking population. And none are large enough to require full-time court interpreters. NO GUARANTEES According to the 2000 Census, roughly half of Connecticut’s 234,000 Spanish-speaking residents described themselves as unable to speak English “very well.” Although they make up only 3.7 percent of the state’s population, Spanish-speaking defendants represent a higher percentage of those in the judicial system, especially in criminal, housing and family court matters. In the latter two courts, they have no guarantee of an interpreter. Exact numbers of non-English speakers in the court system aren’t available because only those who use a court-supplied interpreter are tracked. But in the first three months of 2004, the courts provided Spanish interpreters in more than 11,300 criminal cases and more than 4,300 motor vehicle cases. Those numbers do not show how many people needed interpreters. They were compiled from the interpreters’ individual statistical sheets and may include several “events” for any one person, said Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch. An arraignment, a motion hearing and trial would be three events, even if it were all for the same case. Even with the new tracking program, officials may not get a true grip on how many litigants need interpreters, because requests for interpreters are left to the individuals. Whatever cases the new system does track, roughly 80 percent are expected to be criminal cases, Stearley-Hebert said. Only 20 percent will be in from other dockets, such as family or housing court. In those courts especially, many litigants would rather proceed without an interpreter than postpone their case, said Wethersfield family law practitioner Milagros Cruz, past president of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association. “As it is, cases take pretty long to run through the system and the frustration level gets so high they go with what they have,” Cruz said. “It really shouldn’t be that way. Is justice being meted out if clients are waiving important rights?” STANDARDS NEEDED Even as the data on the number and types of cases involving an interpreter is being collected, the Judicial Branch is working to standardize the quality of its interpreters. In 2002, Connecticut joined the National Center for State Courts, which creates, provides and administers both testing and continued training for court interpreters. By 2006, all state interpreters should be certified under the program. It’s not just a matter of fluency in two languages. Interpreters also must understand the legal concepts and procedures of the legal system — which rarely translate exactly from one language to another. In the past, nearly anyone who could speak English and a second language could hire themselves out as interpreters — either part-time for the state, or by hanging out a shingle and getting hired on a contract basis. Even if the new program being tried in New Haven does prompt the hiring of more interpreters, advocates have other concerns, such as providing them in cases other than criminal matters. “What we don’t have is an adequate number of interpreters, at least on a part-time basis, for family and housing courts — particularly in custody cases,” Cruz said. “Under current policies, the Judicial Branch is not required to provide them.” And, under the current system, the only record of an interpreter is his or her signed oath swearing to do a good and honest job. The interpretation itself is not recorded or documented in the same way every other comment in a hearing is. And without a record, there is no way to review how accurate a translation was, if a case is appealed. A 1998 Kentucky murder trial highlighted those concerns after a judge’s microphone accidentally recorded the interpreter during a sidebar. That recording, and the testimony of an expert interpreter who concluded that, at times, “the interpretation was nonsensical,” prompted the court to order a new trial for the defendant in 2001. “The judge had no idea the interpreter was butchering everything,” said Karen Maurer, the attorney in the Kentucky Public Assistance appellate division who represented the defendant on appeal. “If you don’t speak the language, you have no idea if the interpreter is doing it right or wrong.”

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