California Struggles with Shortage of Courtroom Interpreters

According to reports from California, the state is in the middle of a shortage of courtroom interpreters, exacerbated by low wages which have not been increased since 2017.

California — home to the largest population of bilingual or multilingual individuals in the United States — is struggling to keep up with the demand for courtroom interpreters’ services in the state. According to the California Federation of Interpreters (CFI), that shouldn’t be a surprise, as the profession demands a high level of education in spite of comparatively low wages.

“Interpreters are the ones who actually are the bridges that help the courts uphold the rights and dignity of those who are accused of any crime or anybody who wants to use the justice system,” Janet Hudec, the vice president of the CFI, told KION 5/46, a local news station in Monterey County. “When you don’t have an interpreter in the justice systems, any delay, causes people’s freedoms, causes people’s hardships, and financial hardships.”

According to the CFI, staff courtroom interpreters in the state have not had a salary increase since 2017. In 2017, some staff courtroom interpreters in the state went on strike. Staff interpreters had a 42% lower hourly wage than those the state employed as contractors, according to a 2017 report on the strike in Napa County. As a result, many left staff positions to work as contractors. 

The CFI has also advocated for better treatment of courtroom interpreters during the pandemic, pushing Los Angeles County to allow interpreters to continue working remotely in order to be able to adhere to social distancing measures.

According to KION 5/46, Monterey County’s court system only has nine full-time interpreters and two part-time interpreters on staff, despite the fact that this year alone, the court has required interpreters for 18 different languages or dialects. As a result, the state has to rely on contractors to provide their services.

As nearly half the state’s population uses a language other than English as their primary household language, the state regularly sees high demand for courtroom interpreters. Sometimes, multiple interpreters are needed in order to ensure that a given individual is fairly treated within the justice system, whether they are a defendant, victim, or other individual involved in a case. 

For example, KION 5/46 noted that many languages indigenous to Central America must first be interpreted into Spanish before they can be interpreted into English. This can place additional pressure on the court system, as the shortage is making it difficult to find one interpreter for a given case or individual, let alone multiple.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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