By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.”