ACLU of Rhode Island Files Justice Department Complaint Over Lack of Court Interpreters for Defendants

July 19, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island announced today that it has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division against the state for failing to provide sufficient interpreter services for the 20,000 defendants with limited English proficiency who are involved in criminal court proceedings each year.

“The Rhode Island judiciary and legislature have taken an important step this year by appropriating funds for the hiring of six Spanish-speaking court interpreters,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “Nonetheless, individuals in Rhode Island with limited English proficiency are still severely disadvantaged when they enter the criminal justice system and continue to face the potential loss of their liberty because of their language status.”

The ACLU charges in its complaint that state legal authorities have confirmed that defendants who are not English proficient are sometimes kept in jail unnecessarily for days in order to await interpreters to translate proposed plea bargains. Individual courts have dealt with the problem in a variety of makeshift ways, relying on a combination of freelance interpreters, bilingual relatives, and sometimes even by asking for volunteers from the courtroom audience. But the ACLU says that these makeshift solutions are inappropriate and inadequate in light of the important liberty interests at stake.

The state’s Fiscal Year 2005 budget, which allocates funding for six Spanish-speaking translators, will mark the first time that the judiciary’s has included funding to hire staff interpreters. However, the ACLU noted that the move far from resolves the serious problem faced by the thousands of individuals with limited or no English proficiency that come across the state’s criminal courts, particularly non-Spanish speaking people from the state’s substantial Southeast Asian, Cape Verdean and Portuguese populations. The ACLU also noted that there has been no indication that the judiciary budget will continue even this minimal level of funding for interpreter services in future years, much less expand on it.

According to the ACLU, the state’s public defender and Superior Court judges have acknowledged that the lack of adequate interpreter services during court proceedings is a serious concern. Superior Court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who previously served as the chairperson of a judicial task force established to address this issue, was recently quoted as saying the issue had reached a “crisis point.”

The ACLU’s complaint, filed on July 9, calls for the Justice Department “to investigate this matter and take action to ensure that Limited English Proficient criminal defendants in Rhode Island will have access to trained and qualified interpreters in all stages of judicial proceedings in order to meet the standards” imposed by federal law.

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