Creating a More Accessible Court

Recently, representatives from the Superior Court of California in Placer County visited our monthly Latino Leadership Council public meeting to talk about some of the challenges and opportunities they are facing in serving the Latino community. Their challenges, I imagine, are not unlike those faced by many other agencies up and down the state that are trying to figure out how to adapt their services to the State’s quickly evolving demographics. And while the County Superior Court has a lot of challenges ahead of them, we strongly commend them for reaching out to the community and seeking collaboration with the Latino Leadership Council and our partners in figuring out how to best address these needs.

From the Court’s perspective, they have lost significant funding over the last few years, and seen a 40% reduction in filled positions. Like many other agencies and private enterprises, they are forced to do more with less. From the fast-growing Placer County Latino community’s perspective, the families we work with are dealing with an unfamiliar judicial system in a language they do not understand. Place yourself in their position for a moment: your teenage son is being tried for a crime and you can’t understand the proceedings or know what to expect next; the court has removed your child from your custody and you don’t understand what right they have to do so, and you don’t have the capability to communicate your thoughts and emotions to the judge; or, you are going through a heated divorce process and while your soon to be ex-spouse speaks English and can plea their case, you don’t, and are therefore at a natural disadvantage in the case. Language, cultural and system-familiarity barriers become barriers to justice and freedom.

Placer County historically has not been as diverse as it is quickly finding itself to be. And its systems are playing catch-up. Currently they have one interpreter on staff, which is inadequate for the caseloads they are getting, and have extra interpreters on-call to bring in if the need reaches certain thresholds. We understand the financial constraints the Court is facing and its inability to hire the additional full-time interpreters needed, but we’re happy to see that they understand the problem and are taking steps to mitigate the negative impact. One of the ideas they are proposing is to schedule court cases that require interpreters on the same predetermined dates to ensure adequate interpreting services are available. Simple steps like this, while they don’t fully resolve the problem, help make progress. They also want to work closer with our promotores, informing them of juvenile delinquency hearings ahead of time so that the promotores can assist in navigating families through the process. An interpreter is an objective party that interprets from one language to another, but doesn’t get involved. A promotor (male) or promtora (female) is an advocate that ensures the family understands the system, knows their rights and feels that they have someone they can trust and turn to for guidance.

The Court is also aware that until recently, they were not making information available in Spanish, either in simple things like signage throughout the building or more involved things like information on their website. While they are aware of this need, the steps they have taken to date are still very inadequate. Using automatic Internet translators, notoriously fraught with issues, errors and cultural ineptness, is not an acceptable strategy. Better steps need to be taken to use translators who can ensure that information is being communicated in a way that is not only technically correct, but also understandable and culturally appropriate. This is even more imperative when dealing with legal documents and procedures, which are innately more difficult to understand and have the potential of highly detrimental consequences if misconstrued.

Know that we at the LLC understand that the Latino adults would benefit immensely by learning English and we both encourage them to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at night and weekends and even partner with several volunteers in Auburn to teach ESL classes. Still, dealing with legal issues can be traumatic and when people are fearful, they naturally revert to their first language and their ability to process in the second language often shuts down.

At the Court’s invitation, a group of Latino Leadership Council members and partners have volunteered to work with the Court, forming a workgroup that can help identify and remedy some of the issues the Court is facing. We know it is going to take time to set everything right, but we are excited to see the Court taking this step and hope that it serves as a model to other agencies in our community, and throughout the state, of how to work hand in hand with the community to effectively meet their needs.

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