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Dial-a-Translator gives non-English speaking defendants a new voice in court

Monday, February 23, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009 7:16 PM EST

One of the first principles of our criminal justice system is that defendants fully understand what is happening to them in the courtroom and are given every chance to participate in their own defense.

For judges and other court personnel, this is not just a noble gesture. As every adjudication is capable of going up on appeal, no judge wants the embarrassment and extra work of having a case returned because of error in the record.

Language problems, of course, can cause such reversible errors.

"It's an increasing phenomenon: We have a lot of people in the court system who don't speak English," said Superior Court Judge Chris Goff.

The obvious answer? Translators.
The Indiana Supreme Court recently stretched out a hand to solve the problem - at no cost to local taxpayers. The procedure has a more dignified name, but it might more aptly go by the name "Dial-a-Translator."

"We have a really progressive Indiana Supreme Court," said Robert McCallen III of the Wabash Circuit Court.

When language difficulties arise, court personnel determine the language the defendant speaks and understands. Then the judge dials a phone number, punches in a numerical code as ID, and tells a recorded voice the language help he needs. After a slight delay, a translator in that language is on the line, ready to take the special translator's oath.

From then on, the procedure runs precisely as if the interpreter were in the courtroom. All is recorded and made part of the record.

McCallen and Goff demonstrated the procedure earlier this week.

For purposes of demonstration, the court needed a Burmese translator.

Sure enough, 30 seconds after dialing and audiblizing the request, the court was in phone contact with a Burmese translator, who happened to be in Iowa. Theoretically, the service can access language help from all over the world.

There's still one catch in the procedure, identified by McCallen: "How do you know what interpreter you need? "

Goff, whose Superior Court encounters many more non-English speaking people than McCallen's, recently had five defendants - three speaking Spanish and two speaking ... what?

Burmese, as it happened. An investigator from the prosecutor's office had learned as much in a brief talk with a member of one of the defendant's family.

"You can imagine how valuable it is to have a service like this," said Goff.

Spanish, of course, is far and away the most common language hurdle. This area has no end of people proficient in the language, including members of Goff's family, but the Indiana Supreme Court reimburses translator expense now only when the translator is credentialed. Credentials require not only proficiency in language but a demonstrated knowledge of court procedure.

Though Dial-a-Translator is only a few months old here, Goff has already gone to a "language day." Cases with language barriers are, when possible, scheduled for the same day of the month.

McCallen said if a trial in his court here involved language barriers, he would have the credentialed interpreter in court, not try to make do with "Dial-a-Translator."

Where a translator is needed, by phone or in person, one of the questions a judge will put to the defendants is, "Are you a U.S. citizen?'

If not, there's a followup question, "Do you want us to contact your nation's consulate?'

Explained Goff, "State courts have no ability to enforce immigration laws, but we have an obligation to let another country know if we have one of their citizens in jail."

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