WatchSonoma Watch

Juvenile court interpreters challenge restrictions


A shift in the way interpreters are deployed in Sonoma County’s juvenile court has touched off a dispute between the unionized translators and cost-cutting administrators over how best to serve the growing number of people who don’t speak English.

Interpreters said Superior Court executives last summer reduced their numbers at the Los Guilicos facility from two to one and barred the longtime practice of translating for parents outside the twin courtrooms.

Doris Kosik, a certified interpreter and union steward, said the changes deny mostly Spanish-speaking parents a chance to understand complex legal issues facing their children while creating more work for the lone translator who must jump from courtroom to courtroom.

Kosik said her union has attempted through the formal grievance process to reverse what she called a civil rights violation but has been denied at all levels.

“The bottom line is access is being denied to parents outside the courtroom,” Kosik said. “If it was my kid and I only spoke a foreign language, I would want to know everything that was happening.”

But court officials said they aren’t stopping interpreters from assisting parents. They just want all translating to happen in the courtroom.

Cindia Martinez, the court’s deputy executive officer, said state-funded interpreters were going beyond their job descriptions, explaining county Probation Department reports or translating out-of-court discussions for county prosecutors and public defenders.

In these tough budget times, local agencies should provide their own bilingual employees so the court’s cadre of six full-time and four part-time certified interpreters can meet their own work demands, which include translating in the busy adult Hall of Justice across town.

“We don’t have excess staff,” Martinez said. “We literally have interpreters running from place to place.”

Besides helping minors and their parents during court proceedings, juvenile interpreters assist witnesses and victims with testimony and documents, Martinez said.

Providing qualified court interpreters could become a challenge as the county’s non-English speaking population grows. Under the law, the courts must supply translation services to adult defendants, minors and their parents.

According to the 2010 census, a quarter of the 483,000 residents are Latino, a 52 percent increase over the past decade. By contrast, the county’s white population declined by 6 percent.

All of the county’s full-time interpreters specialize in Spanish translation, but the court hires people proficient in other tongues such as Mandarin, Eritrean and Native American dialects as the need arises.

Certified interpreters must pass a rigorous test and be able to explain complex legal terms in a fast-paced courtroom setting.

This year, the Sonoma court is expected to spend about $1.5 million on interpreters, who are paid a salary and benefits of about $115,000 a year, Martinez said.

The interpreters have not negotiated a raise over the past three years and their contract expires in September, said Brandon Scovill of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. The Guild also represents Press Democrat reporters.

Scovill said the state Administrative Office of the Courts refused to arbitrate the union’s grievance and has referred the matter to the Public Employment Relations Board.

He said interpreters have always provided out-of-court assistance and chalked up the dispute to a “spat” between the county and state courts over funding.

“This is totally cutting off people from access to justice,” Scovill said. “It comes down to parents not understanding the case their child is accused of.”

So far, only Sonoma and Los Angeles courts have imposed the restrictions, but they could spread, he said.

“We’re concerned it’s a statewide testing-of-the-water to see if it will stick,” Scovill said.

Martinez said she knows of no plan to extend the limits statewide or to Sonoma’s adult court.

Meanwhile, public defenders and private attorneys are getting by with bilingual aides and non-certified court interpreters.

On Tuesday, non-English-speaking parents sitting in the lobby of the Juvenile Justice Center took turns speaking with the translators about their children’s proceedings.

Adrian Gonzalez of Rohnert Park said his wife, Marcella, felt more confident about what was going to happen to their teenager after receiving a Spanish-language translation outside court.

“It’s very important to talk before we go in,” Gonzalez said. “We cannot go blind into this.”

14 Responses to “Juvenile court interpreters challenge restrictions”

  1. Common Sense says:

    Meg, The money well is dry! What ever happen to the self-pride of community base groups like the Hispanic themselves forming a help groups from their own community. This all about money so feel free to donate all you want just don’t spend ours too!

  2. Dan Delgado says:

    “The waste and corruption we see in government is not coming from union represented workers — it’s coming from elected officials, their appointed bureaucrats, and the contracted businesses and firms that they conspire with.”

    You forgot to add that most of these elected officials and their appointees are elected with broad union support and are beholden to those unions.

  3. Scovill says:

    Hi, I’m the Union representative mentioned in the article. It seems that a lot of the comments here are coming from people who aren’t aware of the context. Did you know that the California Constitution states specifically that a person who doesn’t understand English has a right to an interpreter? Also, these interpreters are a small cost to the state, (about $2.50 per capita per year) and are far more efficient than waiting for each individual to bring in their own interpreter and then deal with the delay and confusion that results when the court isn’t able to communicate with the defendant or their family.

    Also, this website seems to be concerned with the waste of Sonoma county’s money. That is exactly is what is happening here. The courts are forcing the county to pay for services that they are already being paid for with state funds. The result is waste, delay, confusion, and a stumbling block to providing justice. Justice, by the way, often means locking up criminals, not just letting innocent people go free.

    And of course Unions fight for better jobs for their members. Just like corporations fight for more profit for their investors. The waste and corruption we see in government is not coming from union represented workers — it’s coming from elected officials, their appointed bureaucrats, and the contracted businesses and firms that they conspire with. The public sector Unions fight against those bureaucrats. We do it publicly, and through a democratic process. Did you know that unions fight to open government records up to public scrutiny while the bureaucrats fight to keep them closed?

    Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Dan Delgado says:


    Your observations are all compelling, but you miss the central point–who is going to provide these services? Is it the taxpayer’s responsibility? If so, from where do the additional required funds come? Do we take them from the classroom? How about from public health services? Or perhaps from public safety? Or maybe we should impose yet more taxes on an already overtaxed citizenry? God forbid that the non-english speaking be expected to assume responsibility for their own needs.

  5. Meg Roberts says:

    Asking people to bring their own interpreter would be a big step backwards. It is completely inappropriate to ask young family members to interpret technical and personal information for their parents. In addition to the pitfalls of using children who are not trained to do the task, such demands create disordered family relations and increase the likelihood of domestic violence and child abuse.

    Would you ask a young son to take his parent’s medical history? Would you bring a young niece onto a job site to help a parent communicate with her employer?

    By the way, I agree that learning English is beneficial to people who live in the U.S. But anyone who thinks that can happen overnight is pretty naive.

  6. Really Big Fish says:

    Individuals should have or hire their own interpreter not a dime from tax payer money.Are the interpreters lawyers as well. End this policy, get rid of illegals and change the union system and we will again have a propserous county!

  7. Darius says:

    There’s nothing in the US Constitution requiring even public defenders… people need to know what their rights really are, and you can’t do that by not speaking the language.

    It’s up to the individual citizen to learn what their rights are so the state can’t take them away!

    Would I expect a English translator in a Mexican court? Hah!

  8. truth in news says:

    Gee, I wonder how many translators are working in the mexican courts for those folks who don’t speak spanish? I think we should offer just as many to folks here who don’t speak English. I know, I’m not a very nice person for wanting folks to speak the language of the country they are benefiting from.

  9. Dave Sharp says:

    If you’re going to be in this country,learn the “ENGLISH” language or get out.The U.S. government has been catering to the Hispanics far too long with the “free ride” card.You jump the fence, and expect us to have to learn “YOUR” language.Bring your own interpreters, don’t stick the U.S. taxpayers to pick up your tabs. Interpreters, just another overpaid person in the rank & file :(

  10. Common Sense says:

    We have to cut cost everywhere and the families of the children should bring in a friend or volunteer to help if they cannot or will not learn English. And if the unionized translators are so concern they can help teach other volunteers how to assist them.

  11. Dan Delgado says:

    This sounds like another case of the unions trying to force employers to create more jobs than necessary. If the existing interpreters want to go beyond the job they’re hired to do, let them do so on their own time. If they think there is a need for a service not now being provided (and isn’t there and endless list of those?), let them make their case to the Board of Supervisors. But don’t tell me the union is concerned with the civil rights of the non-english speaking. That’s like the teachers union reps telling me they’re only interested in the students. Hogwash all. Unions are only interested in bettering pay and conditions for their members. That’s their purpose. Anything else is just an attempt to make the union look as if it’s something it’s not and needs to be called out as such.

  12. NOTUTOO says:

    I’m appauled that there could be six thumbs down for Mary Calpin’s suggestion that the parents learn English. I guess it’s not important for them to know English so they can be well-versed in their rights and the laws protecting them?

  13. NOTUTOO says:

    If the unionized interpreters are concerned about the “rights” of the Spanish speaking families not having access to their services outside of the courtroom then they should create a benevolent fund from their dues and provide for this much needed service. And since it would be outside of the certification requirements (because it’s now not an official court function)they could use volunteers and/or bilingual students as a school required community service.

  14. Mary Calpin says:

    Learn English – for you and your children – if you live here. Everyone will benefit. . .