Arkansas: States Address Language Barrier

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 23 12:53:45 UTC 2006

States Address Language Barrier

By Jon Gambrell
The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK -- Rafael Camargo's capital murder trial was long over before
anyone asked if he understood what was going on. In 1995, a jury sentenced
the Mexican national to death in the shotgun slayings of his former
girlfriend and her 15-month old son. His appeals never mentioned the
language barrier, but the Arkansas Supreme Court noted on its own that
defendants who don't speak English deserve to hear legal proceedings in
their own language. Nearly three dozen states have formed a group hoping
to set national certification standards for court interpreters, but
various problems remain -- including a lack of funding.

"Most people think because a bilingual person can order in a restaurant
they are an interpreter," said Mara Simmons, director of the foreign
language interpreting program for Arkansas' courts. "The proficiency and
the language level has to be very high." While Supreme Court justices sent
Camargo's case back to Crawford County in 1997 on another issue, justices
doubted the defendant fully understood what was happening. "An accused's
right to presence at the trial is of little value if he or she cannot
understand the proceedings," Justice David Newbern wrote. The majority
opinion also noted the need for "competent" interpreters who translate
words directly rather than start a sentence with "he says."

Camargo's sentence ultimately was commuted to life in prison after defense
lawyers argued, and prosecutors agreed, he is mentally retarded. The
Arkansas Supreme Court in 1999 launched the state's court interpreter
program, aimed at supplying certified interpreters and translators to all
the state's courts. First-year funding totaled $50,000. "You have the law,
which was incredible for a state to have such a vision for access to
justice," Simmons said. "But at the same time, we didn't have enough staff
interpreters and contract interpreters and the money would run out."

After lobbying by Simmons and others, the program has a $250,000-a-year
budget and use of interpreters has skyrocketed. Spanish interpreters
appeared in 1,601 circuit court cases in 2005, more than double 2004. In
2004, Spanish interpreters appeared in 259 district court cases.
Interpreters in other languages, like Vietnamese, Thai, Russian and
Chinese, appeared in 87 district court cases last year, up from 15 the
year before. Today, Arkansas has 13 interpreters certified in Spanish and
another 29 have passed an initial exam and are preparing for the final
certification test, run through the Consortium for State Courts
Interpreter Certification. As they prepare, the candidates can translate
in minor court cases, Simmons said.

While more than 30 other states belong to the center's interpreter
consortium, the actual steps to becoming an official translator varies
greatly among them. Some states require criminal background checks on top
of written and oral tests. Others, including Alaska, Illinois,
Pennsylvania and South Carolina, have no certification process, said Wanda
Romberger, manager of the consortium's court interpretation services
"Nobody's mandated to that," said Romberger, based in Williamsburg, Va.
"Even once you join, no one can make you establish a certification program
that meets these specific requirements."

Problems remain in states that have certification -- problems that could
invite future appeals. In Arkansas, some local judges and courts choose
not to use certified interpreters, Simmons said. Also, some privately
hired interpreters give legal advice when they should not. Outside of the
courtroom, language barriers remain elsewhere in the legal process. In
1998, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a 10-year rape conviction after
police used a city employee who didn't "speak too much"  Spanish to talk a
suspect into allowing a search of his home.

Simmons said providing trained interpreters is only fair. "Equal-access
justice, the only way to do it, is through elimination of a language
barrier, for witnesses, defendants and victims," Simmons said.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list