Gideon ()

“One of the goals of the Interpreter and Translator Services Unit is to ensure meaningful access to the courts by providing interpreters, who are highly qualified and trained, to all persons who are limited English proficient in all court proceedings and court-related proceedings. This access is extended to [Limited English Proficiency] parties and other LEP individuals whose presence or participation is appropriate to the justice process.”

So states the Judicial Branch’s policy statement regarding limited English proficiency. Lockstep with our chief justice’s goal of making courts more open and providing access to all individuals, the Judicial Branch is attempting to provide English translation and interpretation services to individuals who come into contact with the court system.

This obviously makes sense. In Connecticut, according to the last census report, a full 8.2 percent of the population, totaling some 276,120 people, speak English “less than very well.” In 2013, the top 10 countries of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were Latin and South American, which suggests that a fair percentage of people who end up having brushes with the criminal justice system may not claim English as their primary language.

It’s no secret that minority demographics make up the bulk of the defendants in the criminal justice system. As that number increases and the number of foreign-born residents increases, there will be a greater need for interpreter services in our courts. Our Legislature recognized the important role of these interpreters when it enacted Connecticut General Statute 52-146l, which dictates that “any confidential communication which is deemed to be privileged under any provision of the general statutes or under the common law made by a person with the assistance of an interpreter shall not be disclosed by such interpreter in any civil or criminal case or proceeding or in any legislative or administrative proceeding, unless the person making the confidential communication waives such privilege.”

This is one of those rare statutes in which the Legislature had the foresight to predict the growing need for assistance to speakers of different languages. As someone who speaks Spanish rather poorly, I frequently encounter clients whose grasp on English is just as tenuous. Interpreters enable me to freely and confidentially communicate with clients, to discuss the intricacies of the state’s allegations against them and to provide competent and understandable legal advice. The presence of an interpreter also permits me to practice in an ideal way: not limited to quick meetings while the client is in a lockup in the basement of a courthouse, we have the privilege of meeting with clients at jails and spending the necessary hours going over the important life-changing decisions they have to make.

I’m sorry, we had the privilege. Because the Judicial Branch has enacted a new policy banning interpreters from traveling to jails across the state to assist in interpretation and translation of communications between criminal defense attorneys and their incarcerated defendants.

Do you need me to tell you why this is a terrible thing? OK. Primero, es una discriminación en contra de aquellos individuos que son indigentes y no tienen los recursos para pagar una fianza. Si uno no está en la cárcel, se supone que puede acudir a la corte para obtener la ayuda de un intérprete allí. Mejor aún, si uno tiene los recursos para pagar una fianza o contratar un abogado privado, probablemente tenga también recursos para contratar un intérprete privado para poder comunicarse con su abogado. Los acusados pobres y encarcelados no gozan de este lujo.

What? You didn’t understand that? Now imagine you’re an individual in jail, in a foreign country, and everything around you is in a language you don’t understand. In that environment, you’re allowed to see the one person—your attorney—who purportedly has your interest in mind only once a month and that too for very little time. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it says in that paragraph above.

Second, this change in the Judicial Branch’s policy perpetuates the very “meet-and-greet” version of American justice that we try so hard to avoid: by de-incentivizing visiting clients in their makeshift homes, we are limiting the extent of our interaction to the few minutes we can snatch away from our busy schedules in court.

Most Geographical Area courthouse line attorneys are carrying caseloads of approximately 200 clients at any given time and anywhere from 20 to 40 on a particular day. Dockets are jam-packed in our GA courts and thus the lone interpreter has to run around translating for a variety of attorneys as quickly as possible. I can’t even imagine what private attorneys or assigned counsel must have to go through, shuttling between courts all over the state on the same day.

The Judicial Branch offers some alternatives, such as videoconferencing or Language Line, a telephonic translation service that’s installed in all courthouses. Let me ask you: have you been to a lockup in any of our GA courthouses? There’s no such thing as privacy or room for confidential communications. There’s a constant thrum of activity, with every individual who has court scheduled that day able to observe and hear every word spoken. “Confidential communications” is a lie we tell ourselves so we don’t have to spend more money fixing the poor layout of our courthouse lockups.

Not to mention the burden this places on the marshals, who would ideally prefer that we have lengthy conversations with our clients at the jails, so we don’t choke up the supply of rooms.

Lack of funding is a reality. But denial of access to interpreters for foreign-speaking defendants in locations where they can have the measured, thoughtful and private conversations with their attorneys that they need in order to make monumental decisions about their fate is nothing but an avoidable tragedy.•