By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
All non-English-speaking crime victims will now be provided state-funded translation services in Tennessee court proceedings.
federal mandate ordered states to extend free translation services to
all litigants - plaintiffs and defendants - or risk losing billions in
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
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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."