An excerpt of this story can also be read in Spanish. —Editor
Jaime Gonzalez’ daughter leans on her grandmother, who holds the young girl’s sleeping infant brother. Gonzalez sits and waits in the “Spanish-speaking” row of a stuffy courtroom. His ability to remain in the country is in jeopardy after his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic violence, a charge he denies. For nearly a year, he has been to court “many, many times,” only to be delayed or sent home due to a lack of interpreters.
The judge calls a name, but it’s not Gonzalez. His eyebrows tighten with concern. He swivels his head to look at interpreter Mariela Phelan-Caceres. At any moment, she might be whisked away to a higher-stakes trial, and he’ll have wasted another day in court.
“Excuse me, your honor,” Phelan-Caceres interjects. “We still have a Spanish-speaker.”
“Ah shit,” grumbles a tattooed white man, apparently further down the docket.
Phelan-Caceres’ eyes focus as she interprets in real time. Gonzalez answers questions and presents papers documenting his compliance with all of the court’s directives. The judge nods, commends his behavior and dismisses him. Gonzalez’s shoulders loosen and he turns to his family, tilting his head toward the door and pursing his lips at his daughter, Lalezka.
Through Phelan-Caceres’ interpretation, Gonzalez explains to me that his ex-girlfriend filed the charge right after returning from a year-long recovery program. When she came back to their house, she kicked out the care-giving grandmother without a word of thanks, then relapsed and became verbally abusive.
Gonzalez cut ties with his ex and maintains his innocence, but the accusation temporarily removed his children from his full-time care. In that time, Lalezka’s grades, attendance and confidence suffered, according to a letter from the after-school program where Gonzalez once volunteered to improve his English and help his daughter with homework.
Through his community service, he has earned back custody, but his legally mandated responsibilities have taken the place of volunteering. He had hoped to get his name quickly cleared. Instead, he’s been struggling for months to untangle himself from a confusing, and at times humiliating, legal thicket.
Mariela Phelan-Caceres says a judge once laughed in her face when she asked him to instruct a witness to speak slower. (Photo by Jessica Perez)
Because of a persistent shortage of interpreters, Santa Clara County’s justice system has effectively segregated people by language for years. And this separation has led to inequality.
“It’s a huge problem,” says county Public Defender Molly O’Neal.
According to court filings, defendants, county interpreters and defense attorneys, English speakers receive the full protection of due process far more often than non-native speakers who regularly get delayed and sped through cases with overworked interpreters or uncertified bilingual court members. These defendants are expected to make life-altering decisions in a matter of seconds, sometimes before they grasp the full consequences of their case.
“One day, I want to become a citizen. How am I going to do that?” Gonzalez says about his charge. “Especially since I don’t have any schooling. I was born in the streets. I grew up with foster parents. But I didn’t get into the gangs, into the drugs. Only working. They need to apply the law the way it should be. They need to investigate the cases the way they should be. You feel like they’re stepping on you.”
The ripple effects of this shortage has earned the South Bay court system one of the worst reputations in the region. The Hall of Justice averages two or three fewer interpreters per day than the minimum to run the courts properly, according to California Federation of Interpreters spokeswoman Mary Lou Aranguren.
“Compared to other courts in the Bay Area, only Santa Clara County is suffering this kind of extreme, chronic and ongoing shortage of Spanish interpreters,” she says.
Court officials say they don’t keep track of the number of Spanish-speaking defendants that have been affected by the shortage. They maintain that every person who enters the courthouse receives equal treatment, regardless of the language they speak.
Aranguren, public defenders like Meghan Piano and interpreters including Phelan-Caceres paint a different picture. They highlighted problems in more than 70 interpreter-needed cases between Jan. 20 and Feb. 26—a number they say is only “the tip of the iceberg.”
Many times, Spanish-speaking defendants must endure outlandish delays. Take Pedro Hernandez, who waited for an interpreter from 8:45am to 4:15pm on a Jan. 20 court date.
“One day, I waited until 2:30pm only to be told there was no interpreter,” Gonzalez says. “I have children in school. Since I’m a single father, I have to cook for them, wash, clean, everything. I don’t have anybody to take care of them. We don’t have another alternative. I don’t want my children to be seeing this. You get stressed out waiting for an interpreter. Perhaps there’s going to be one. Or perhaps not. That’s the biggest problem.”
When no interpreters are available, would-be defendants must reschedule. This primarily affects Spanish speakers, but for defendants who speak a less common language, wait times can stretch for months. Jaswinder Singh has been rescheduled five times because he speaks Punjabi, yet still no suitable interpreter has been hired to help his case. Because of delays and rescheduling, countless hours funded by taxpayer dollars have been wasted waiting for interpreters.
“It’s a problem,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen says. “We have a lot of cases, and I want those cases moving. Anything that slows down the administration of justice is not good for the community.”
In other cases, defendants waive their constitutional right to an interpreter hoping to get a speedier verdict. But doing so puts them at risk of not understanding the ramifications of their trials. On two days alone, Feb. 10 and 16, this happened to Karina Vera, Mauricio Sanchez Hernandez, Glenn Alejandrooca Ocampoflores, Richard Quiroz Mendoza, Wilson Antonio Henriquez, Long Hoang Do, Rodolfo Angel Ojeda, Jose Leonardo Carabajal, Oscar Ortega Diaz, Victor Mendez, Antonio DeJesus Cortesarista and David Perez Ramirez.
Defendants who waive their right to an interpreter must settle for whoever (if anyone) can speak Spanish in the courtroom. On Jan. 20, Luis Oscar Chavez Mendoza waited five-and-a-half hours, only to waive his right to a certified interpreter and rely instead on a Spanish-speaking attorney from the Public Defender’s office.
In other cases, judges have taken to acting as interpreters for defendants, which both the public defender and district attorney consider inappropriate behavior from the bench. On Jan. 20, Judge Teresa Guerrero-Daley interpreted for Roberto Avalos Santiago, Francisco Alirio Catedral, Juan Carlos Lombar Gomez and Jose Antonio Rodriguez, then dictated their comments for the record in English. These actions constitute improper procedure, according to several sources interviewed for this story.
“I don’t agree with a judge doing that,” Rosen says. “It puts the defense attorney and prosecutor in a difficult situation. To the extent that we argue with the judge, it’s about the law and how to apply the law. It shouldn’t be about the translation.”
Requests to interview the county’s presiding judge, Risë Jones Pichon, who oversees all court business, were denied.
On Feb. 3, Favian Ochoa Macias waived his interpreter rights—despite facing sexual assault charges. On Feb. 18, Jose Domingo Alvarez Vega waived for a readiness conference concerning his charge of child endangerment. On Feb. 22, Jehova Arciga waived before facing felony drug charges. And on March 7, Primitivo Hernandez gave up his right to an interpreter during a plea hearing concerning his felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon.
“It’s an absolute failure,” says Darby Williams, an attorney who previously worked in the Public Defender’s office. “If somebody walks out of that courthouse and they only have a vague idea of what they’ve done, or what has happened to them, or their loved ones, then that’s an absolute failure. They’re creating legal scars.”
Carmen Ramos has spent 20 years as a county court interpreter and she says the situation has never been more dire. (Photo by jessica Perez)
In late 2013, the court employed 19 full-time interpreters. At the time, that was enough. But staffing bottomed out after six retired and several prospective hires refused full-time positions. In a letter sent to the court in April, nine independent contractors expressed concern with the court’s level of service and chose to limit their availability because of “inadequate compensation” and “unacceptable working conditions.” As of now, there are 14 full-time Spanish interpreters—three of whom will retire or resign within the next few months, according to Aranguren.
The county also regularly employs seven contract interpreters (Phelan-Caceres is one of them) and 12 interpreters for other languages, including Tagalog, Vietnamese and Russian. David Yamasaki, executive officer of county courts, downplayed the contract interpreters’ concerns, citing a statewide dearth of translators.
“There’s a shortage of court interpreters,” Yamasaki says. “There just is. We can’t hire them. We want to hire them. We’d love for more people to apply. We have open recruitment. We acknowledge unquestionably that we need more interpreters. We call interpreters every single day to come in. But we cannot force people to accept employment.”
To be fair, court interpreters must possess considerable skills. They have to capture not just the exact semantic meaning, but also the emotional subtext of people with varying dialects and education levels. To become certified, they must pass a rigorous exam—nearly 90 percent of test-takers fail—to ensure they have been trained thoroughly and know their job’s strict code of ethics.
Yamasaki cites the low passing rate as further proof of the shortfall. But that tiny percentage may owe partially to the fact that test-takers aren’t screened for their qualifications. As a stopgap, former interpreter coordinator Karen Jones subcontracted to independent agencies. These workers make $140 per hour—almost four times more than staff interpreters who make $36 per hour.
Over a period of six months, Jones—who was not made available for comment, and was subsequently reassigned during the reporting of this story—asked for 182 hours of subcontracted work at the inflated rate. For the same cost, the county could have employed a staff interpreter for nearly 18 weeks. And in a concerning twist, Phelan-Caceres says some of the subcontractors lack certification, which puts the court at further risk of inaccurate interpreting.
Court spokesman Joe Macaluso says the high demand has led to some interpreters demanding the right to cancel a court obligation at any time for a more lucrative payday in the private sector. But Aranguren argues that the court is hiding behind this alleged shortage to not pay interpreters an acceptable wage.
“It’s all a matter of being competitive enough,” Aranguren says. “Yes, certainly, there are contractors out there who will work for the $1,000-a-day job, and will make the courts a lower priority. That’s the marketplace, but the problem is that they used that as an excuse to simply not address the needs. There’s a great contradiction between their rhetoric about the importance of the services and the reality of what they’ve actually done.”
According to Aranguren, interpreter compensation has failed to match the rising cost of living in the area. Daily contractor rates just went up for the first time up in nine years to match federal levels, but full-time salaries didn’t raise with them, which undermines the incentive for an interpreter to shift to salaried employment. Meanwhile, there is no pay scale that rewards interpreters who stay with the courts—a full-time employee makes as much on her first day as in her 10th year.
Statistics on interpreters don’t quite cohere with the story from court officials.
In Spring 2014, there were 1,282 court interpreters in California. Today, there are 1,336. That could be a shortage, but as of October 2015 the state held $14 million dedicated to reimbursing counties for court interpreter costs. Next year, Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget will allot $7 million more.
But rather than tap into those funds, the county resisted paying travel and lodging costs and turned down applicants because they asked to mediate only specific (but in-demand) trials. According to Aranguren, when Jones, the county’s longtime interpreter coordinator, was asked to present a list of potential hires, she submitted names of some applicants who were ineligible—because they had died.
“Often times, ‘there’s a shortage of interpreters,’ becomes part of the story—and that’s a lie,” Aranguren says. “That is a lie that people have been telling for years. And to us, that’s part of the institutionalized racism on this issue. Even though they have the money, courts take the position: ‘We don’t want to spend the money on that.’ And that is the underlying problem here.”
Maria Cruz says court officials have ‘intimidated and retaliated’ against interpreters who ask for better working conditions. (Photo by Jessica Perez)
In response to the recent staff departures, Jones reportedly increased her remaining employees’ workload without a proper understanding of their job. Interpreters note that she is only fluent in English and never interpreted, much less at court-approved standards.
“An interpreter may go from interpreting arraignments to pleas to evidentiary hearings to witnesses to victims, rushing from one to another without adequate breaks and with no preparation in cases that require it,” says Maria Cruz, a court translator for 26 years. “This means we will not know what the defendants or witnesses will be testifying to. Not having this context can lead to serious errors.”
David Ortiz, a certified interpreter, recently got promoted to supervisor to help administration understand the unique demands of the position. But according to interpreters, he’s still under hiring probation and Jones blocked his previous attempts to implement change.
“I’ve never worked in a place where the person has no knowledge of the work,” says Phelan-Caceres. “We have only a matter of seconds to do several processes: listening, analyzing, comprehending and interpreting the message. On top of that, we work in very charged emotional situations—homicide, child custody, etc.—and the range we need to interpret goes from sophisticated testimony of a forensics expert to that of a victim who could be illiterate.”
Researchers have found interpreter accuracy fades after 30 minutes of continuous work. To protect against this, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the American Bar Association recommend pairing interpreters together “for all lengthy legal proceedings” or giving breaks every 30 minutes.
In Santa Clara County, such practices have not been applied. The April letter from independent contractors stated that “interpreters are shared between defendants and witnesses for the prosecution,” contrary to industry standards.
“We’re not shying away from the fact that these organizations think these are the best practices,” says Yamasaki. “Yes, absolutely, it may be a best practice. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a practical practice. Certainly the reports have validity. This is optimally what you want to do. But we don’t have our optimum number of interpreters.”
Compounding the problem, Cruz says, is that county officials have “intimidated and retaliated” against interpreters who asked for the proper conditions—arbitrarily docking pay or foisting a heavier workload on them. Without administrative support, these interpreters’ complaints either went ignored or were scoffed at by judges who lacked sympathy for the overwhelming nature of the work.
“Once I worked a hearing and the witness was an expert in gang and prison culture,” Phelan-Caceres says. “Very interesting testimony, but he was going very fast. I was new back then, so I asked the judge, ‘May the court please instruct the witness to slow down for the interpreter?’ He laughed in my face and didn’t do anything. These are the sort of things you encounter here.”
According to Aranguren, this environment has spawned negative health effects—several interpreters have lost their voice and one was “put on disability related to workload stress and impacts on her pregnancy.” When fatigued employees call in sick, the already excessive workload gets even worse. Outsiders have been appalled.
Last year, Nick Zacherl, a former interpreter for the European Parliament, came to work for the county. When Jones denied him an interpreting partner twice, he gave her “the benefit of the doubt” and translated for “longer than [he] should have.” The third time, he translated for half an hour, then told the judge that he would be unable to continue without a partner or breaks—a warning the judge didn’t take kindly.
“The judge called the office to get a ‘real interpreter’ that would work the way that she wanted the interpreter to work, not the way the rules said we should work,” Zacherl says. “When that interpreter came, I thought that I had a teammate to work with. The judge derisively snickered and said that I was being replaced and I could just leave. Santa Clara County throws interpreters into situations where they’ll be expected to work for five-plus hours in a row.”
On June 9, San Jose Inside learned from Phelan-Caceres that Jones had been transferred to another division after 20 years at her post. In an email, Macaluso claimed this was done in accordance with the court’s “practice of periodically reassigning staff for continued development,” but this is the first time the interpreter division has seen this type of management restructuring. And though Nancy Pruitt, Jones’ replacement, once managed courts in Palo Alto, Terraine and South County, she doesn’t have any interpreting experience either.
Aranguren and Phelan-Caceres contend that the transfer came in response to the consistent complaints by interpreters, and the reporting of this story. They also stress that an administrative shift means little unless the court commits to altering the way they attract, retain and treat interpreters.
“This changes nothing,” says Aranguren.
Interpreters aren’t the only ones who have voiced concerns. Three public defenders have filed written complaints with Aranguren echoing her sentiments. Molly O’Neal, the head of the Public Defender’s office, says she has seen a pattern of disrespect since the 1990s, when interpreters exclusively worked as daily contractors without benefits or a consistent salary—the era in which Karen Jones got hired.
“I think as a system we should learn how to really change the way we look at interpreters,” O’Neal says. “If we’re having a problem getting qualified interpreters into our county, we need to pay them more. It’s an equal access to justice issue that needs to be addressed. We have to fund our justice system.”
Darby Williams, a former deputy public defender, laments that she must speed through interactions with her non-English speaking clients because interpreters are so pressed. As a result, clients chafe at the lack of attention and come to think the justice system isn’t looking out for them.
“Law is all about language,” Williams says. “You don’t get the benefit of being able to sit down like you would with an English-speaking client and put them at ease. Instead, you’re hurrying. Then, you have to continue their case. They have to take another day off work … they could lose [their job] in an instant.”
In November of 2012, Judge Vanessa Zecher remanded Alfredo Garcia for a probation violation after a DUI arrest. Garcia hadn’t sought to disobey the terms of his sentence, according to sources familiar with his case, but he failed to sign up for his court-ordered classes because his responsibilities were written in English—a language he couldn’t read.
The decision was rightfully reversed, but nobody knows how many defendants like Garcia have been unfairly punished for not speaking English. And the linguistic demands of the county’s court system aren’t expected to wane.
Non-white citizens now comprise a majority of the population. By 2050, Latinos are projected to outnumber whites 36 percent to 28 percent.
The consensus from attorneys and interpreters is that the court simply needs to make its interpreters—and by extension its defendants—a priority. Aranguren says she’s encouraged by Jones’ transfer, but she stresses that there must be further reforms to ensure that the county protects the due process rights of the public.
“There’s nothing rational about this,” Aranguren said. “This really is a constitutional crisis. It makes [non-English speakers] feel like there is no justice. Like they don’t matter and their life doesn’t matter.”