Today, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) introduced the State Court Interpreter Grant Program Act of 2012. This legislation creates a federal grant program to ensure high quality state court interpreter services are made available to non-English speakers appearing in court. Court interpreters assist non-English speakers appearing in court as litigants and witnesses. Court interpreting services vary greatly by state -- some states have highly developed programs while others are trying to get programs running but lack adequate funds. This inconsistency creates the potential for poorly translated court proceedings, or court proceedings that are not translated at all.
"The law can't be justly served if those involved in a court case do not understand what is being said or read to them," Kohl said. "Each state is in charge of their own court interpreter system and the success and size of these programs vary greatly. It is often easy to find people well versed in multiple languages and it is often easy to find people who understand legal language, but it is often hard to find people that both understand legal language and fluently speak and translate multiple languages. This bill would provide money for states to improve their own court interpreter system. These systems will make sure that justice is not obscured by a language barrier."
Senator Kohl's legislation addresses the shortage of qualified court interpreters by authorizing $10 million per year, over five years, for a State Court Interpreter Grant Program. This grant funding would provide much needed assistance to states to develop, implement and improve state court interpreter programs in order to ensure fair trials for individuals with limited English proficiency.
A lack of qualified interpreters can create serious problems in the justice system. For example, a poorly interpreted trial may be appealed on the grounds that justice was not administered fairly. Those appeals clog up the courts. In addition, where there are inadequate resources available, interpreters may not be able to keep up with the caseload and trials may be delayed unreasonably and in violation of a defendant's right to a speedy trial. By increasing the pool of certified and qualified interpreters, local and federal agencies, in addition to the courts, will be able to better provide interpreter services in law enforcement, national emergency preparedness and response, immigration proceedings, human trafficking investigations, and more.
When Wisconsin launched its state court interpreter program in 2004, using state money and a $250,000 federal grant, certified interpreters were scarce. Since then, using that grant money, the state now has 114 certified interpreters. Most of those are certified, Spanish-language interpreters, where the greatest need exists. However, the state also has interpreters certified in sign language, French, and German. The list of qualified interpreters -- those who have received training and attained requisite scores on an oral assessment - includes 56 individuals who speak Russian, Hmong, Korean, Bulgarian, Polish and many other languages.