In November 2020, Crosscut published a news article addressing concerns that legal processes are being delayed in the Seattle area because interpreters are refusing to work in person in courts and jails. In consultation with interested parties, NOTIS's Legal Division has authored a response, pointing out that methods exist for interpreters to deliver high-quality services without needlessly risking exposure to COVID-19. That response is copied below.
On November 18th, CrossCut published an article by David Kroman entitled “COVID-19 delays justice for King County inmates who need interpreters - Non-English speakers are receiving substandard legal representation because interpreters won’t appear in person, attorneys say.”
NOTIS, the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, is compelled to present a very different perspective on the dire situation faced by Limited English Proficient (LEP) inmates today.
The very same week that CrossCut published this article, the New York Times printed an op-ed by its editorial staff: “America Is Letting the Coronavirus Rage Through Prisons.” The NYT article sites horrifying statistics about infection rates in correctional facilities, summarizing them with this conclusion: “The American penal system is a perfect breeding ground for the virus.” And yet, not only are interpreters being asked to work inside these facilities, they are blamed for the miscarriages of justice suffered by non-English speaking inmates because of their “unwillingness” to do so.
In Washington State, while court interpreters are officers of the court, they are not employees of the court, nor of the city or county that the court serves. Thus, they do not receive any of the benefits of employees, notably medical insurance and paid sick leave. Interpreters are independent contractors for whom illness has a direct financial impact.
COVID has wreaked economic hardship far and wide—on interpreters as well. When an interpreter declines an assignment, it is due to the extraordinary risk it entails and not to an overabundance of alternative assignments. Interpreters are eager to render their professional services when provided a safe and effective way to do so.
The responsibility of providing safe conditions for adequate interpretation for LEP inmates in King County lies squarely at the feet of the county. Interpreters who decline assignments requiring them to expose themselves and others to substantial risk of infection are behaving rationally and responsibly. When attorneys meet with inmates in the jail, it is in a cubicle slightly larger than a phone booth, with the inmate seated on the other side of a glass barrier and both parties using an old-fashioned telephone handset.
The problems described in David Kroman’s article are solvable without subjecting interpreters to high risk or scapegoating them for their “unwillingness” to assume this risk themselves. The notion that an interpreter needs to be in a huddle with the recipient of their interpretation is arcane. Indeed, many courts and correctional facilities have found excellent solutions, that simply require modern technology and advanced planning.
When COVID struck in March, 2020, everyone scrambled to find safe ways to interact and continue to provide just about every conceivable type of service. Indeed, most municipal and district courts in King County and elsewhere have utilized platforms such as Zoom and WebEx to hold court and provide access to interpretation for anyone who needs it. They quickly figured out how to facilitate confidential attorney-client communications, bringing interpreters into the confidential virtual “room” whenever needed. SCORE jail in south King County has been successfully connecting interpreters remotely by video.
As for documents, such as guilty pleas, that attorneys wish to review with their clients with the assistance of an interpreter, they need only be sent electronically to the interpreter so that the interpreter can sight translate the document to the defendant. This is nothing new, and given their importance, the interpreter should always be provided a copy of any documents.
For most interpreters, particularly in high-demand languages, interpreting is their livelihood. They are highly skilled professionals who must pass rigorous examinations to become certified court interpreters and must maintain this credential through many hours of continuing education and in-court experience. Their job is cognitively demanding and emotionally taxing.
Court Interpreters´ professional ethics and standards of practice exist to maintain a very high quality of interpretation. Court Interpreters are often the direct providers of language access in the justice system, but they are not the ones creating access problems, nor do they have the power to fix them on their own. May this letter serve as the catalyst to dispel misinformation, find solutions, and acknowledge the proper respect due to this profession.