The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division against the state for failing to provide appropriate language interpreter services in criminal court proceedings to Limited English Proficient [LEP] persons. While crediting the Rhode Island judiciary and legislature for taking an important step this year by appropriating funds for the hiring of six Spanish-speaking court interpreters, the complaint alleges that LEP criminal defendants continue to lack the services that federal law requires.

As far back as 1987, then-Chief Justice of the R.I. Supreme Court Thomas Fay recognized that the lack of interpreters for LEP defendants was an issue for this state’s courts. In 1999, the state legislature stepped in and enacted a statute requiring that LEP defendants whose native language was Spanish, Cambodian, Cape Verdean and Portuguese be provided certified interpreters for their criminal proceedings. However, it was only last year that the state began a formal training program for interpreters.

The state’s Public Defender and Superior Court judges have acknowledged that LEP defendants have been kept in jail unnecessarily for days in order to await interpreters to translate proposed plea bargains. On a daily basis, the courts have dealt with the problem in a variety of makeshift ways, relying on a combination of freelance interpreters, bilingual relatives, and sometimes even by asking for volunteers from the audience. However, the ACLU complaint quotes federal guidelines indicating the need for specially qualified interpreters in criminal proceedings in light of the important liberty interests at stake. R.I. Superior Court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who served as the Chairperson of the judicial task force first established in 1991 to try to address this issue and who also helped with the creation of the new interpreter program, was recently quoted as saying the issue had reached a “crisis point.” Court officials have estimated that 20,000 LEP criminal defendants are processed by the courts each year.

When the state’s Fiscal Year 2005 budget is formally enacted later this month, it will mark the first time that the judiciary’s budget includes funding to hire staff interpreters. However, in pursuing its complaint, the ACLU noted that no state official has suggested that funding six interpreters will resolve the problem; that the interpreters for whom funding has been allocated will be equipped to address the problems faced only by Spanish-speaking defendants, not those who speak other languages; and, for fiscal reasons, continued level funding for interpreter services in future years – much less expanded funding that is essential to ensure that non-Hispanic LEP defendants receive adequate interpreter services -- remains uncertain.

The ACLU’s letter to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division calls on the agency “to investigate this matter and take action to ensure that LEP criminal defendants in Rhode Island will have access to trained and qualified interpreters in all stages of judicial proceedings in order to meet the standards” imposed by federal law.