Monday, May 15, 2006

Legal system's plea for interpreters echoes across state

Monday, May 15, 2006
BY KATE COSCARELLI
Star-Ledger Staff
A typical day for Patti Firth, the lone full-time Spanish interpreter in Somerville's state Superior Court, can be described in a word: crazy.

She spent much of a recent morning -- between translating plea deals and divorces -- frantically working the phone outside a fifth-floor courtroom. She already had hired one freelance Spanish interpreter to cover the docket and now needed another for an emergent family case. Even as she dialed the phone, a public defender said she was needed on one more case.

"I need another interpreter desperately," she said into the receiver before dashing into an attorney conference room.

Interpreters have been used frequently for years in Essex, Hudson and Middlesex county courts. Now, however, that need is spreading as more Spanish-speakers settle in suburban and rural New Jersey.

The resulting demand for interpreters is just one way the changing demographics in places like Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset and Monmouth counties are challenging the legal structure.

"The lack of affordable or accessible legal services for this population is huge," said Maria Juega, chairwoman of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Princeton, which does not take cases. "There is really no help for them with many issues. The danger is they are very vulnerable to abuse by landlords, by businesses, by gangs -- anyone who wants to take advantage of a person in a weak position."

In Hunterdon County, court statistics show an interpreter was called 270 times in the past court year, compared with 30 about a decade ago. In Somerset County, there was a seven-fold increase in less than a decade. And in Monmouth County, there were 1,775 cases last year, compared with 322 in the 1996-97 court year.

To help meet demand, the state is currently recruiting a handful of full-time Spanish interpreters. Spanish interpreters are being hired for the first time in Burlington and the court's main office in Trenton, said Robert Joe Lee, of Language Services Section at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Firth was hired full time last year, said Angela Pardo, the operations division manager for the vicinage that includes Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren courthouses. Already, officials are considering hiring a second interpreter, she said. And more requests are coming from the two other counties.

"We're growing by leaps and bounds," Pardo said.

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