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TN now provides translation for victims in court

7:36 AM, Jul 10, 2012   |    comments
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By Brian Haas, The Tennessean

All non-English-speaking crime victims will now be provided state-funded translation services in Tennessee court proceedings.

A federal mandate ordered states to extend free translation services to all litigants - plaintiffs and defendants - or risk losing billions in federal aid.

When the Tennessee Supreme Court solicited comments about the proposed changes it heard from a group not mentioned by the federal government: victims.

After hearing from victims advocates, including a Nashville prosecutor who had dealt with victims who couldn't understand court proceedings, the high court expanded those translation services.

"It is important that not only those charged with a crime, but also crime victims, divorcing parents and all those who find themselves before the courts are able to communicate effectively," Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark said in a statement Monday. "We are one of the first states to take this much-needed initiative that will benefit the many diverse people that interact with our courts."

Nashville victims advocate Verna Wyatt said the additional translation services would improve criminal justice as a whole in Tennessee.

"I'm happy to see that victims of crime were included in that. For so many years, victims of crimes weren't even thought of, much less a second thought," she said. "I think it's going to help the victims, I think it's going to help the prosecutors."

TN expands services

In 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent notices to every state saying they must provide free translation services to parties in any court case, whether it's a murder trial, an eviction or a divorce proceeding. Failure to do so, he said, was a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and could result in the loss of all federal funding, which amounts to nearly $14 billion for Tennessee.

Up until now, the state had only paid to translate for indigent defendants and witnesses as they testified in court. Those services range from $25 to $50 an hour and cost the state about $1 million each year.

The Tennessee legislature, in response to Holder's order, approved an additional $2 million to expand translation services.

But including victims hadn't been anticipated by the courts, according to drafts of the proposed rule changes. Nashville Assistant District Attorney General Rob McGuire thought it important enough to push for victims to be added.

"It's daunting for someone who speaks English, who has maybe more of a cultural connection to the American criminal justice system," McGuire said of most court proceedings. "But imagine if you didn't have any of those things? Just the basic 'What's going on?' question you'd have a hard time getting answered."

All access is the goal

The change, which took effect July 1, is in keeping with a 2008 initiative by the Supreme Court designed to make the state's judicial system more user-friendly.

The Access to Justice Commission, established by the high court, has created universal forms that citizens can submit for common cases such as simple divorces. And it has pushed hard to get more private attorneys to perform free legal services for those who can't afford attorneys.

"It's to make sure that all who are coming in front of the court system have access," said Mary Rose Zingale, court services director for the state. "In some cases, that means access to an attorney. The legal side, the interpreter side."

A report released last month shows that the state has made significant progress toward that goal. By 2015, the state wants to have half of Tennessee's practicing attorneys doing an average of 50 hours of free legal work each year. In 2010, according to the report, 40 percent of the state's attorneys were averaging about 74 hours.

McGuire said that kind of work will vastly improve people's lives.

"That might be their first brush with attorneys who care," he said. "I think what we'll probably see is increasing links in serving folks in our community who want to be fully invested in living in our city."

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