Monday, April 17, 2000
Exotic languages heard in court
Global influx has interpreters in big demand
BY Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer
English is the language of the land, but it's increasingly sharing time in Tristate courtrooms with tongues from around the world.
From French and Fulani to Spanish and Susu, the list ranges from familiar to far-flung.
The growing number of immigrants and their involvement in criminal and civil cases has created an increasing demand for interpreters.
That puts an additional burden on court money and time. Courts often pay for translators, and cases with interpreters usually involve longer proceedings.
When unusual languages pop up, court personnel scramble to find interpret ers. They don't always succeed.
A Butler County court had to dismiss a minor misdemeanor charge against Ghanaian Rimmy Amakye a year ago because it couldn't locate someone who spoke Twi. It is one of 71 languages spoken in Ghana, and also is spoken in Sudan.
But with some difficulty, Butler County Common Pleas Court found an interpreter when Mr. Amakye, 37, was charged earlier this year with felonies: rape, three counts of gross sexual imposition and one count of domestic violence.
Interpreter Samuel Asmal sat next to him recently during a preliminary hearing and trial. Prosecutors dropped the rape charge, and jurors acquitted Mr. Amakye of the remaining charges.
Languages that were unheard of five years ago around here such as Cambodian, Khmer, Serbo-Croatian we now get regular requests for, said Mary Gulasey, coordinator for the Language Bank, a non-profit agency in Cincinnati that provides interpreters for courts in Hamilton, Butler and Boone counties.
The number of Language Bank court interpreters used during last month jumped about 25 percent from March a year ago.
Vocalink, a Dayton company that provides interpreters for courts in Hamilton, Butler, Green, Darke and Miami counties, has seen a similar increase over five years, company president Amelia Rodriguez said.
About 800 court cases in the Tristate last year required foreign-language interpreters, officials said.
Pay rates vary. In general, translation businesses charge $60 per hour, while an independent interpreter costs $36 per hour.
Hamilton County courts spent about $15,000 last year on interpreters, said Tony Upton, assistant court administrator. The number of cases requiring Hamilton County's pretrial services to arrange for foreign-language interpreters rose from 229 in 1996 to 316 last year.
Campbell District Court estimates it had about 180 cases last year requiring interpreters. Judge Gregory Popovich said there's been a 50 percent increase in such cases over five years.
Butler Common Pleas Courts spent $1,560 on interpreters last year, but murder and aggravated vehicular homicide cases involving Spanish-speaking defendants have forced it to spend more than $3,000 this year.
We can handle it, but we're going to need a lot more interpreters, Butler Common Pleas Judge Matthew Crehan said. Finding interpreters can be torturous.
Judge Crehan said he didn't think anything in the law says specifically that a defendant is entitled to an interpreter, although he hasn't researched this issue.
However, he noted that all defendants are entitled to certain constitutional rights: due process, effective counsel, and others rights he said cannot be upheld if the defendant doesn't understand what's happening in court.
Last month, Boone District Court had to find an interpreter for five Estonians accused of cultivating marijuana.
One of them spoke enough English to get through the arraignment and ask for a public defender, deputy clerk Jessie Wiley said. It took a little bit of time, but we got an interpreter for their pretrial hearing.
The rising demand for foreign-language interpreters, court officials and immigration experts say, can be traced to increased numbers of foreign born people moving to the Tristate, and greater awareness among court officials of the need for interpreters. And, more immigrants feel comfortable asking for them.
Those who have been in this country longer understand their rights better and are less fearful of indicating that they need interpreters, said Mary Benedetti, director of the University of Cincinnati's Center for English as a Second Language.
A large number of construction and farm jobs and Cincinnati's manageable size attract many immigrants to the area, said Dr. Riall Nolan, director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Global Studies and Affairs.
Greater Cincinnati officials have become more conscious of the need to also have interpreters during encounters with police. Consider:
Law authorities are setting up a database identifying foreign language skills among police officers throughout the Tristate.
It's quite a cultural change for the city of Cincinnati, said Cincinnati Detective Roger Robbins, who is coordinating the data-gathering process. We're trying to catch up because we're a more diverse city than we were five or six years ago.
Hamilton County Municipal Judge Guy Guckenberger was seeing so many Hispanics in DUI cases that he sought rehabilitation programs in Spanish. Talbert House, a social service agency in Cincinnati, began doing that six months ago.
I'd much rather have them learning something that will help them than sitting in jail for three days watching cartoons on TV, Judge Guckenberger said.
In response to the larger number of foreign-language-speaking defendants, the Camp bell District Court began using AT&T's language line service three years ago.
The AT&T operator finds an interpreter for the language needed, and the interpreter talks with and speaks for the defendant over a speaker phone.
We use it for arraignments and short hearings, not for trials or long, drawn-out hearings, Judge Popovich said.
Few immigrants wind up in court and usually for misdemeanors or minor traffic offenses, according to Simon Talamantes, a St. Bernard resident who serves as a Spanish interpreter for courts 10-15 times a week.
They break some laws out of ignorance, he said. We're not talking about a crime wave. When you have this many people in a foreign country, you're going to have some who don't know the rules. They might not know they can't walk down the street with an open can of beer, for instance. What we consider crimes here aren't necessarily crimes in their countries.
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