On Trial in a Language You Don’t Speak

A shortage of court interpreters means vulnerable, non-English-speakers may not be getting adequate legal support

Kimberly Jin

(Photo by Christian Charisius/Getty Images)

COOK COUNTY, ILL. — Morelia Orozco walks into the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building at 8:30 a.m. holding a clipboard with her schedule for the day. As a full-time Spanish court interpreter in her 40s, she is swamped with seven courtrooms to cover. Just before her first case, Orozco (who preferred not to use her real name) receives an unexpected text message urgently calling her to another courtroom. She rushes over to help, leaving her assigned case unattended.

“We are literally the voice, the eyes and the ears of people who cannot speak English.”

The client is a middle-aged man who has trouble expressing himself in English in a stressful court setting. At lightning speed, Orozco translates the judge’s words for her client and the client’s words to the court. About 30 minutes later, she hurries off to her next assignment.

We are always running from one [courtroom] to another,” says Veronica Rivas, a per-session Spanish court interpreter for Cook County.

Court interpreters are in high demand in Cook County, home to 743,200 people with limited English proficiency — around 15% of the population. But in recent years, the number of full-time interpreters has decreased. In 2014, the county had 34 full-time interpreters; now, there are 29.

At the Daley Center, one of the busiest courts in Cook County, an average of 66 cases call for an interpreter daily. Only six Spanish interpreters and one Polish interpreter, including per-session interpreters, are regularly stationed there.

Advocates say the decline in full-time court interpreters means vulnerable, non-English-speaking communities may not be getting adequate legal support. The Chicago News Guild, a local of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) that represents court interpreters, has collected a list of incidents when no interpretation services were available in courts. (Full disclosure: In These Times’ staff is represented by CWA’s Washington-Baltimore News Guild.) The list, though not comprehensive, records 26 such cases since April 2018. For instance, on June 11, 2018, two Spanish-speaking parents were unable to get unsupervised visits for their child at the Juvenile Courthouse, and on November 7, 2018, the court ignored an Arabic-speaking defendant’s request for an interpreter. According to the list, the judge conducted proceedings off the record,” and a friend of the defendant who speaks a little English attempted to help but did not interpret the court proceedings unless the Judge asked the defendant a question. At the end, the defendant was found guilty.

The unavailability of court interpreters often leads to long wait times, continuances or a family member or friend interpreting for the case.

We clearly do not have enough interpreters,” says Craig Rosenbaum, executive director of the Chicago News Guild. The courts are not being served.”

In 2018, around 58,000 interpretation sessions were conducted in Cook County courts, a drop of 31% from the 85,000 sessions in 2015, according to the Chief Judge’s office. The office maintains, however, that the number of court interpreters is sufficient to meet demand, and interpreters are provided upon request,” according to Pat Milhizer, communications director at the office.

Interpretation services are a low priority within most court budgets nationwide, says Mike Ferreira, president of the California Federation of Interpreters Local 39000 (also a local of CWA). When it comes to language access in the courts,” he says, the courts tend to do whatever is the least expensive, minimum level of service to avoid appellate issues.”

A lack of court interpreters has caused problems across the country. A shortage of Mayan interpreters, for languages such as Mam, K’iche’ and Q’anjob’al, has caused delays in immigration courts. And in one Huntsville, Ala., case, a woman who knew only a few words of English unwittingly relinquished parental rights to her youngest son in 2016.

There’s a constitutional obligation to provide everyone with access to the courts,” says Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Cook County. Providing an interpreter is a necessary part of that. It’s not optional.”

The Office of the Chief Judge is currently in the process of hiring more full-time interpreters. Meanwhile, 54 per-session interpreters have been enlisted, none of whom are eligible for employee benefits.

Claudia Perez, a single mother of four, has worked for Cook County as a per-session interpreter for over 12 years. She has no health plan, no sick pay and no paid vacation, despite working three to four full days per week. I used to work almost every day when I first started,” Perez says. Because the county doesn’t want to pay for health insurance, they limit my hours.”

In an ongoing contract negotiation with Cook County, the union is demanding 30 full-time Spanish interpreters, seven Polish, two Arabic, and sick pay for per-session interpreters.

The importance of interpreters should not be underestimated, says Elsa Prado, who worked as a per-session interpreter in Cook County from 1998 to 2013. We are literally the voice, the eyes and the ears of people who cannot speak English.”

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Kimberly Jin is an investigative journalist and a master’s candidate at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
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