City, courts to translate for immigrants, refugees

Influx in foreign speakers creating a linguistic problem, officials say.

Faced with an influx of immigrants and refugees into the region, Dayton’s municipal court system and some legal departments plan to translate vital documents into other common languages.

“Our goal for 2016 is to tackle some of the language issues we have,” said Ann Murray, the Dayton Municipal Court administrator.

Welcome Dayton in 2016 will assist with translating victim-information pamphlets and victim-notification letters from the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office into Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Somali.

The city’s Welcome Dayton program also will help the court translate protection orders and sentence entries into the most commonly spoken foreign languages in the region.

It’s not clear yet how much the translation service will cost.

The expanded service is needed, officials say, because of the increase in foreign speakers, many who don’t understand the documents put before them, including criminal charges, pleas or conditions of probation.

The Dayton Municipal Court for years has offered some of its most important documents in Spanish.

But more recently, the courts have encountered an increase in defendants, victims and plaintiffs who struggle to understand English and hail from other places around the globe, including the Middle East, Russia, China and Africa.

“Over the past couple of years, we’re getting more of the Russian, the Turkish, the Swahili and a lot of different dialects,” Murray said.

The nation’s foreign-born population has grown 57 percent in the last decade, according to some estimates. About one in 15 Ohioans speak English “less than well.”

Local residents with limited English proficiency are provided translators when they appear in court, but the court orders they receive are in English.

The orders are translated verbally, but citizens do not get hard copies of documents in a language they can understand. That will change for some next year with the translation of sentence entries and protection orders into the most popular foreign languages that court employees encounter, Murray said.

“If we expect defendants to comply, they really need to understand what we are expecting them to comply with,” she said.

The Dayton prosecutor’s office also has teamed with Welcome Dayton to translate victim-notification communications and other informational documents.

Language barriers can make it hard or confusing for citizens to access needed services, and criminal defendants and victims have the right to understand what’s happening in their cases, said Melissa Bertolo, Welcome Dayton’s program coordinator.

Some legal forms must be in English so court staff can properly understand, process and input the information submitted, Bertolo said.

But victims and defendants need those records and documents translated for reference purposes, she said. Failure to follow a court order or terms of probation can lead to incarceration, property forfeiture and other punitive outcomes, officials said.

New policy

The push to convert key documents into foreign languages is an outgrowth of a language-access policy the city adopted earlier this year.

The policy states no citizens can be denied access to services for being limited in English proficiency. It also says Dayton will prioritize document translation.

Dayton has made great strides in improving language access, but across the region many services, agencies, organizations and governmental entities have struggled to keep up with an increasingly diverse community, said Jessica Ramos, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. in Dayton.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protects limited English proficient citizens from discrimination by any agency that receives federal funding, but there is a lack of regulation on translation and interpretation services outside of the state and federal legal systems, she said.

Ramos said the quality of services can be inadequate. Also, she said, language access is important during every stage of the legal process, beginning at the crime scene and continuing from the investigation to the prosecution to the sentencing.

“Courts need to continue to expand access to ensure that (limited English proficiency) individuals can fully participate in all stages, just as any English-speaker could,” she said.

‘Not just a Spanish community’

The stakes are particularly high in the court system, considering court orders and actions that are lost in translation can have a life-altering impact, said Christina Brownlee, Vocalink’s director of marketing.

The city of Dayton contracts with Vocalink to provide interpretation services for court proceedings. The Dayton company offers interpreting on site and over the phone, as well as written translation services for 160 languages.

This region is home to about 50 dialects, and Cincinnati likely has 70 to 80, the company said.

“The need for services is growing and language mixes are growing,” Brownlee said. “We’re not just a Spanish community anymore.”

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