The case for Spanish-speaking courts in places like the Bronx—and all over the US

The Bronx Supreme Court in New York City.
The Bronx Supreme Court in New York City.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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The Bronx’s jury shortage has a relatively simple fix. If New York courts are brave enough to try it, the solution would speed up trials, make verdicts more accurate, and save taxpayers more than $4 million a year. So what is it? Trials in Spanish.

Jodi Morales, an attorney with The Bronx Defenders—a public defense organization, says there’s no legal reason why court proceedings are restricted to English. Unlike other countries, the United States does not have an official language. English is what’s most spoken nationwide, so the courts and other government institutions use it by default. But Spanish is gaining:

In communities like The Bronx, Spanish is already lingua franca: Less than half of those who live there speak English. As a result, the borough has a linguistically-broken judicial system that no longer mirrors the population it was designed to serve.

The Bronx’s current jury shortage is evidence of the break. New York Judiciary Law 510 requires jurors “be able to understand and communicate in the English language.” This fluency is required even when no one involved with the case speaks it. “Everybody spoke Spanish,” an anonymous juror told Quartz, referencing a trial he sat in June: “The defendant, the witnesses, all of us on the jury.” But because of §510, taxpayers paid an interpreter $300 a day to interpret proceedings into English—incorrectly, he adds: “At one point [the interpreter] said something and we all just looked at each other because we knew that wasn’t what the [witness] said.”

Bilingual herself, Morales says errors are rare but when they happen, “The judge will tell the jury, ‘Even if you have an understanding of the language, whatever the interpreter says is the evidence’”–even if the mistake completely changes the case.

And for Angel Gonzalez, it did. In Waukegan, Illinois, Vanessa Potkin, Director of Post-Conviction Litigation for The Innocence Project, says translation error lead to Gonzalez’s wrongful conviction. He spent over 20 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit: His statement professing innocence was mistranslated as a confession.

In The Bronx, Morales says limited-English defendants often take a plea “because they don’t feel comfortable communicating.” Take someone accused of jumping the turnstile, for example—the term used for hopping over a subway gate to avoid paying fare. In English, Morales says this is called “a violation. And in Spanish the word violación means rape…[I]t scares people because they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not charged with rape!’” She explains many limited-English defendants eventually give up, saying, “I don’t want to deal with this anymore.”

When Spanish-speakers don’t plea out, their trials are delayed for multiple reasons—first, the jury shortage. During selection for a December trial, Morales says “more than half of the prospective jurors had to be released because they did not speak the language… It makes our jury selection take a lot longer, it makes cases drag out, and it’s just overall very difficult to find qualified jurors.” This is also the case in Queens, where six different burglary and murder verdicts were appealed last March after presiding judges said the jurors didn’t speak English well enough.

Then there are the other delays: Hearings postponed until an interpreter can be scheduled, ones that start late because the interpreter’s stuck on another case. Once the trial begins, interpreters have to repeat everything that’s said, so proceedings take twice as long.

This extra time gives witnesses a chance to change their story. When someone bilingual takes the stand, Morales says, “[T]hey’re hearing the questions twice, so it gives them an opportunity to change their answer.” Typically, she explains, “the more witnesses you call, the more inconsistencies there are,” but at one recent trial, the prosecutor’s witnesses were all bilingual, giving them time “to connect their answers to one another.”

Simply put, Spanish-speaking Americans rarely receive their constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. “If we’re trying to have a fair justice system, then we need to make the justice system accessible to the constituents and make it reflect the community,” Morales says.

If a sense of justice isn’t enough to persuade the courts that trials in Spanish are a good idea, maybe money will be. This fiscal year, New York State Unified Court System plans to spend $4,031,755 on contract interpreters. Millions more will go toward salaries and benefits for 300+ employed interpreters and additional staff in the courts’ Office of Language Access, which manages interpreting. Then there’s the expense of overly-lengthy trials: Court reporter overtime, defendants left in holding at $325 a day, and other ancillary costs budgeted up to $7.5 million this year. At a certain point, Spanish-language trials aren’t a question of social justice. They’re a matter of cold, hard cash.

Money aside, Morales says, “It’s just so interesting that the system doesn’t reflect the community at this stage…We have to make our justice system more accessible to the people who keep finding themselves engulfed by it.”