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Law and language: When language is a barrier in the criminal justice system

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Walking into a court room as a victim or the accused can already be a nerve-racking experience. Especially if it is the first time someone is interacting with the criminal justice system.

Now, imagine walking into a court room and everybody around you is speaking another language.

Even the person that is supposed to represent you.

“There is a need for bilingual paralegals. The biggest complaint I receive is clients not being able to talk to their attorneys directly,” said Villarrubia & Rosenberger, P.C. immigration attorney Tabitha Villarrubia.

She has seen several cases where lawyers and firms only have one Spanish speaker on their team.

“So often I have seen criminal attorneys have someone quickly sign plea agreements without thoroughly explaining the situation. Because of the language barrier, they just try to sweep it under the rug.”

According to a U.S. Department of Justice, having no interpreter or having incompetent interpreters dramatically magnifies the barriers that deny equal access to justice for linguistic minority litigants.

This interferes with the court’s ability to serve justice when linguistic minorities are victims or witnesses.

In Indiana, 91.05% of residents speak only English while 8.95% speak another language.

Spanish comprises 4.64% of languages spoken in the state.

Villarrubia has seen various police reports that state that language was an issue during an initial encounter.

“Sometimes they are often waiting for an interpreter to show up to the scene for some cases. This means if there was a crime, that’s time slipped away if there’s someone who they could be looking for. So often they bypass an interpreter and use people’s children to interpret,” said Villarrubia.

“This isn’t good because children might not be interpreting in the right ways, because they have a smaller capacity of understanding a situation fully.”

The Indianapolis Recorder reached out to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) who stated they have Spanish-speaking officers, but they do not have a way to track the number of Spanish-speaking officers.

They use language cards and ensure officers have access to a language line as well.

RELATED: Immigration policy in Indiana and its effect on Indy’s Hispanic community

“I’ve received feedback, like even if clients have interpreters in the courtroom, sometimes court orders aren’t translated, and they don’t have the resolutions they need from a case,” said Kristin Garn, director of Immigrants’ & Language Rights Center for Indiana Legal Services.

“Clients are afraid to assert their rights because they aren’t familiar with the American legal system.”

She notes that California will hold hearings in Spanish, and she believes this holds potential for Indiana.

“Sometimes judges can speak Spanish and can find out clients didn’t understand or misunderstand what’s happening, and the judge will dismiss the case entirely,” said Villarrubia.

She said it is also always important for law enforcement and other officials to use someone qualified to interpret correctly and not use family members.

Issues can arise when you ask a young child what their parents might be saying; because they are children, they may not have the ability to translate a situation the correct way.

There is also the issue of fear if one parent called the police because of domestic violence. A child could misinterpret out of fear what the abusive adult in the situation did.

“This is such a statewide issue. We are working with a client base where this is not their native country, and sometimes they come to us with trauma from their own country, so we have to have trauma-informed trainers,” said Garn.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at 317-607-5792 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON.

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