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Kohl Bill to Establish Court Interpreters Grant Program Approves By Senate Panel

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

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

Today, members the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) serves, overwhelmingly approved Kohl's legislation to create a federal grant program to ensure state court interpreter services are made available to individuals testifying in court.

"The shortage of qualified interpreters has become a national problem, and it has serious consequences that can unfairly alter legal decisions and affect lives," Kohl said. "My legislation would help to ensure fair trials for individuals with limited English proficiency by creating a modest grant program for state courts to hire certified court interpreters.

"I am pleased my colleagues on the committee joined me in recognizing the seriousness of this issue by approving this overdue, common sense measure."

Court interpreters assist non-English speakers appearing in court as litigants and witnesses. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, 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.

Senator Kohl's 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. Since then, using that grant money, the state now has 51 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 German. 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, Portuguese, Polish, French and Somali, among other languages.

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