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Boone County to lose its state-certified interpreter; need for services increases

The county will use other cities’ interpreters if a replacement isn’t found.
Thursday, April 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:28 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

No matter the language they’re spoken in, facts are facts: The demand for foreign-language court interpreters in Boone County is increasing, just as mid-Missouri is about to lose its only state-certified interpreter.

Missouri courts are required to provide foreign-language interpreters for non-English speakers in civil and criminal cases. Most court proceedings don’t require interpreters to be state-certified, although certified interpreters are strongly preferred, said Phyllis Launius, program coordinator for Jefferson City-based Access to Justice Program, part of the Office of State Courts Administrator.

Using a state-certified interpreter ensures that those who need interpreters have equal access to the law, Launius said. The Office of State Courts Administrator coordinates the only training and certification program recognized statewide for court interpreting.

“We’re guaranteeing their due process when they go to court,” Launius said. “We just need to get more people certified and in here.”

There are 20 state-certified interpreters in the state of Missouri, Launius said. Four more people are scheduled to take their oral exams in May, three in Spanish and one in Arabic, she said, but none of those people live in mid-Missouri, she said.

If local, state-certified interpreters don’t become available by August, Boone County courts will either have to rely more heavily on those who haven’t been state-certified, or look statewide — and possibly beyond — to provide interpreters. Bringing state-certified interpreters to Boone County will cost the state more money, and will likely complicate the scheduling of state-certified interpreter appearances in court, Launius said.

Launius said for 2004, the state paid for a Spanish-language certified interpreter 12 times in Boone County criminal cases. In 2005, a state-certified interpreter was used 71 times in Boone County criminal cases.

That’s almost a six-fold increase in demand for a state-certified interpreter in criminal cases.

The courts administrator has ranked Boone County courts second in the state for money spent on Spanish-language interpreters for the past two fiscal years. Launius said Boone County has probably ranked second for the past two years because Columbia, as a college town, brings in a more diverse population than other parts of the state and is close to Interstate 70.

And although there were once three state-certified interpreters in the region, Launius said, mid-Missouri now has one state-certified interpreter who can be contracted out to courts, and he is soon moving out of state.

William Clary, mid-Missouri’s primary certified Spanish-language legal interpreter, will begin working as a professor at the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas in August. He said he became certified in 2000, when the Office of State Courts Administrator first began its certification program.

“I do the lion’s share of the work here in mid-Missouri,” Clary said. He averages three to five cases a week for a total of about 10 hours — from appearing in court or meeting with defendants at Boone County Jail or the public defender’s office. And he said his case load has increased since he was certified. Since Sept. 1, 2005, Clary said, he’s probably interpreted for about 100 court cases in Boone and surrounding counties.

Clary said it isn’t economically feasible to be a full-time court interpreter in mid-Missouri because the case load, while large, wouldn’t be enough for someone trying make a living by interpreting in court. “The problem with this kind of work is that it’s more of a supplemental job”, he said.

On average, state-certified interpreters make from $50 to $55 dollars an hour, Launius said.

When Clary leaves, “We will probably be in a bind,” said Columbia attorney George Batek. He said although Boone County does as good a job as it can in using interpreters, the lack of certified interpreters isn’t ideal, as they are needed about “every other day.”

With demand increasing and no certified interpreters to replace Clary, Boone County courts will have to contact state-certified interpreters from somewhere else in the state, a costly alternative.

“Without someone being local, they’ll have the additional expense of their mileage coming back and forth,” Launius said. Besides paying for gas, the state is authorized to pay for meals and lodging for state-certified interpreters. Because state-certified interpreters agree to be contracted out to anywhere in the state, Launius said, getting one won’t be a problem. Getting one in a timely way, though, will be more difficult.

The other alternative will be to rely on non-certified interpreters. But having reliable interpreters is crucial for courts to function smoothly. Interpreters who are state-certified are trained in court etiquette, Launius said — they must remain neutral, and interpret everything that’s spoken in English as it’s being spoken. Interpreters aren’t supposed to advise parties in a case, and are only supposed to speak with them to interpret what they’re saying, she said.

Those who aren’t state-certified are sent a code of ethics and asked to sign it, but signing the paper isn’t a requirement, Launius said. After that, it’s up to a judge to determine whether the interpreter is doing his or her job. Many judges require interpreters to take an oath before court proceedings begin, and some gauge an interpreter’s qualifications by asking him or her a series of questions about interpreting experience and educational background. If the judge believes the interpreter to be qualified, the court proceeding can continue.

“By statute, that’s been defined as qualified,” Launius said.

Jeffrey Kays, a Boone County defense attorney representing a client who requires the use of a Korean interpreter, said interpreters are necessary so that clients can understand both their legal problem and their attorney’s advice.

“It’s just another hurdle,” Kays said about the language barrier between client and attorney.

That hurdle was apparent between a judge and a non-state-certified interpreter on March 20, when Kays’ client appeared in court to enter a plea of not guilty to a charge of promoting prostitution.

Statements from Judge Gene Hamilton were often followed by silence from the interpreter, who did not appear to understand that everything had to be interpreted. Hamilton had to prompt the interpreter several times, and asked, on another occasion, whether a comment made by the defendant had been completely interpreted.

“It was the interpreter’s first time handling an interpretation in court,” Kays said. “She was nervous. She was intimidated.”

The certification process itself can be intimidating.

Launius stressed that being bilingual does not necessarily mean someone would make a good interpreter, because interpreters are not allowed to summarize or paraphrase. Someone who wants to become certified must attend training sessions and pass written and oral exams. The exams are standardized for Missouri and about 34 other states by the National Center for State Courts Consortium for State Interpretation, Launius said.

Joy Rushing, the assistant court administrator, said the 13th Judicial Circuit will continue to examine the issue of court interpreters.

Rushing planned to attend last week’s Cambio de Colores conference, which focuses on Latino issues and research in mid-Missouri, said Kathy Lloyd, court administrator for the 13th Judicial Circuit.

“That is a good way for us to connect in terms of foreign language interpreting,” Lloyd said about the conference.

The 13th Judicial Circuit is also looking at ways to address the absence of a local, state-certified interpreter, Rushing said.

She said a state-certified interpreter who lives in Jefferson City may be called upon more frequently, in addition to several state-certified interpreters who live in St. Louis. But she said bringing people in from St. Louis “can get kind of expensive.”

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