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Kohl Introduces Legislation to Establish State Court Interpreters Grant Program

Location: Washington, DC


Program would fund interpreters for non-English speakers appearing in court

U.S. Senator Herb Kohl today introduced legislation that would create a federal grant program to support state court interpreter services. Court interpreters assist non-English speakers appearing in court as litigants and witnesses. In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the current lack of qualified court interpreters poses a significant threat to our judicial system and emphasized the importance of addressing the issue. Court interpreting services vary greatly by state -- some states have highly developed programs, others are trying to get programs running but lack adequate funds, and still others have no program at all. This inconsistency creates the potential for poorly translated court proceedings, or court proceedings that are not translated at all.

"Some of the stories associated with this problem are simply unbelievable. For instance, a husband accused of abusing his wife was asked to translate as his wife testified in court," Kohl said. "The shortage of qualified interpreters has become a national problem, and it has serious consequences. When interpreters are unqualified or untrained, mistakes are made -- and because the lawyers and judges are not interpreters, these mistakes often go unnoticed."

In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Justice Kennedy described a particularly alarming situation where bilingual jurors can understand what the witness is saying and then interrupt the proceeding when an interpreter has not accurately represented the witness' testimony.

This legislation addresses the shortage of qualified court interpreters by authorizing $15 million per year, over five years, for a State Court Interpreter Grant Program. Those states that apply would be eligible for a $100,000 base grant allotment. In addition, $5 million would be set aside for states that demonstrate extraordinary need. The remainder of the money would be distributed on a formula basis, determined by the percentage of persons in that state over the age of five who speak a language other than English at home.

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.

When Wisconsin's launched its state court interpreter program in 2004, using state money and a $250,000 federal grant, certified interpreters were scarce. Now, just two years later, it has 43 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 and Russian. The list of provisional interpreters -- those who have received training and passed written tests - is much longer and includes individuals trained in Arabic, Hmong, Korean, and other languages.

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