Hinds County judge cites necessity of Spanish translators

Published 3:30 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2007

In the four years she’s been a Justice Court judge, Nicki Boland has seen a dramatic change in Hinds County’s demographics.

More and more Spanish-speaking people are turning up in the courtroom, she said — many of them without any background in English and little understanding of legal proceedings in the United States.

In response, Boland said, “We need to hire someone who is bilingual at the very least. “Everyone has a right to understand the charges that have been brought against them … and I can’t move forward unless I know that they do.”

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From 2000 to 2006, the county’s Hispanic population increased by 33 percent, according to Census Bureau statistics.

Still, Justice Court, which is funded by the county, has no one employed who can speak Spanish, and none of the court documents are translated, Boland said.

Justice Court Administrator Patricia Woods did not return a call for comment.

For cases in Circuit Court, the state Administrative Office of Courts has appointed a certified interpreter, Hinds County Circuit Court Administrator Karla Watkins said.

Knowledge of the legal process and specific terms that may translate differently is required for certification, Watkins said.

In Hinds County Court, the requirements are less stringent. Often a sibling or child of the person facing charges will serve as a translator, representatives said.

People who cannot speak English and are arrested sometimes plead guilty because they are coerced into doing so, said Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

“They don’t understand, so they think that they’re just making the charges go away,” he said. “But that can have an effect on citizenship and can stay on someone’s record.”

“When you get down to it, it’s a violation of the U.S. Constitution to not allow people to understand the consequences of their plea,” Chandler continued.

Justice Court doesn’t need a full-time translator yet, though, said District 1 Supervisor Charles Barbour, who has a bilingual project manager who has helped out in other county departments before.

“It is cheaper to have a county employee who spends most of their time doing something else but can assist the court system in times that a translator is needed,” he said. “It’s a better use of taxpayer money.”

District 3 Supervisor Peggy Calhoun agreed.

“We need to have the service because we have many cultures living here,” she said. “But I think Mr. Barbour has been helpful in lending his employee.”

But a bilingual person needs to be employed at Justice Court, too, Boland said, even if the person is also doing a clerk’s duties.

“It’s too late to address the situation when it happens in my court because I need a translator right then and there,” she said. “This is a court for everyone … and the Hispanic population will only continue to increase.”