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Patterson: U.S. Justice System Faces a ‘Language Crisis’

Late last year, a deaf man was held in a Colorado jail for 25 days because he was not given access to a sign-language interpreter. And once he was given access and was able to communicate with officials, the charges against him were dropped. He spent nearly a month in jail in a violation of his basic rights to a fair and speedy trial simply because he wasn’t given a timely opportunity to communicate with authorities.

This is just one example of the language crisis that faces the American justice system as we attempt to find a way respond not only to hearing-impaired people like the man in Colorado but to an ever-growing and even wider range of people who are not English proficient and desperately need guidance from an interpreter who knows the individual’s language and can help him receive a fair trial.

Furnishing interpreters is expensive, but we have found a successful and efficient answer to this problem. The 9th Circuit Court in Orlando, Fla., is an example of this. Instead of bringing in interpreters, they have instituted a videoconference system that we believe is the future of courtroom proceedings.

In recent years the need for courtroom interpreting services across the country has risen dramatically. In August 2010, the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice drafted a letter to “provide greater clarity regarding the requirement that courts receiving federal financial assistance provide meaningful access for limited-English-proficient individuals.”

That letter also called for interpreters in civil cases, where they were previously required only in criminal cases. According to the letter, the Justice Department believes that such access is critical in all court proceedings, a requirement that will add new strain on already tight state and local budgets.

A typical interpretation session takes 10 minutes. But to conduct a 10-minute translation session, the court must hire someone for two hours at roughly $45 to $55 per hour. This is where the inefficiency lies. Compounding the costs are the inherent scheduling challenges of court proceedings, including last-minute hearing cancellations and process delays. Oftentimes, a contractual interpreter will be paid to travel only to be dismissed following a hearing delay.

Florida spends an estimated $28 million a year on court interpretation services and California spent nearly $93 million in 2010 — figures that include a significant amount of staff augmentation through outsourcing. And the costs are becoming unmanageable.

We have found that videoconferencing, coupled with contact center technologies, allows for the better matching of a qualified interpreter. Remote interpreters are now able to securely view and interact with the court through Web browsers from any computer attached to the court network. This also enables the courts to get resources from other courts.

Effective language interpretation also combines language and vocal analysis. By using cutting-edge video and audio technologies, acting interpreters can communicate both visually and vocally with their clients during a hearing and provide the best possible translation services. The video solution provides a secure environment and enables conversations without barriers.

Integrating video technology also allows remote interpreting to cater to an underserved population — hearing-
impaired constituents. When people think of remote interpreting, often the hearing impaired are forgotten; however, this population, in particular, desperately needs video interpreting as these individuals must be able to see the interpreter. The lack of interpreters for this community has resulted in numerous injustices.

By having interpreters on demand through the remote interpreting system, American Sign Language-certified interpreters can be contacted to provide services for hearing-impaired litigants or litigators at the flip of a switch, helping citizens receive a fair and speedy trial.

One other issue is certification. Contract interpreters are not necessarily certified. Remote interpreting resolves this problem by specifically driving traffic to certain interpreters, resulting in a higher quality of interpretative services during court processes. With a pool of on-call, highly skilled and certified interpreters, courts can ensure the quality of their interpreting service. In addition, personnel with the correct skills can be identified quickly, maximizing time and resources.

Not only is remote interpreting a necessity to protect legal rights, it is also one of the few ways for local and state courts to meet the increased demand within limited budgets. We have seen a savings of as much as 50 percent by using remote interpreting, a crucial savings in today’s budgetary environment. But, most importantly, this is a fair and equitable way for justice to be served.

Boyd Patterson served for 29 years as a judge in Dallas County, Texas. He is currently employed by Cisco acting as a resident expert and adviser on videoconferencing in law enforcement and judicial fields.

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