Two prominent legal advocacy organizations in Maryland issued a highly critical report yesterday alleging that low-income Hispanics are routinely denied equal access to virtually every aspect of the state's judicial system because of language barriers, discrimination and legal restrictions based on immigration status.
In the course of a three-year investigation, the Public Justice Center and Casa de Maryland documented many obstacles that Latinos often must navigate to exercise their legal rights: police officers who harass Hispanic residents, court interpreters with no formal training, public defenders unfamiliar with the impact of plea bargains on immigration status, state agencies that refuse to help non-English speakers unless they bring a friend to translate.
"We have decided that it is no longer fair to make people sit in different places in a courtroom because of their race," said Gustavo Torres, director of Casa de Maryland in Silver Spring. "Yet in Maryland today, a person can sit through an entire court proceeding without understanding a word of what is being said."
Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), said the governor has not yet reviewed the report but would work with legislators on the issues it raises. "If the allegations are accurate, that there are state agencies not in sync with the governor's commitment to inclusiveness and diversity, he will be disappointed and will take the appropriate actions," Morrill said.
Although Maryland law requires the state to appoint interpreters to assist criminal defendants who "cannot readily understand or communicate the English language," the report's authors concluded that judges and lawyers often allow hearings to continue without one if the defendant speaks minimal English.
In addition, civil litigants in Maryland typically are not provided with interpreters. And unlike in the District and several states, all of Maryland's court notices, such as subpoenas and summonses, are written only in English, the report said.
"When someone is told they have to appear in court, all they have is that piece of paper," said Jonathan Smith, director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. "If you don't understand that paper, you might miss an important court appearance or begin the entire process at a disadvantage."
Even when interpreters are provided, the report said, they often have no formal training in the field. Of the 137 Spanish-language interpreters registered with Maryland's judiciary, less than 25 percent were noted as having some type of certification, the study found.
As a result, some interpreters have translated court testimony improperly or directed Latino defendants to plead guilty or make statements not in their interest, the report said.
The report described the Hispanic community's distrust of local police and criticized prosecutors and public defenders alike for failing to hire enough Spanish-speaking staff. In addition, the report said, judges, prosecutors and even defense attorneys often fail to realize how their decisions could cause a legal immigrant to be deported.
In many cases, low-income Latinos are unable to obtain legal counsel. Most providers of low-cost legal services in Maryland do not have Spanish-speaking employees, and only 5 percent of clients represented with funds from the Maryland Legal Services Corp. in recent years were Hispanic--a figure that should be closer to 15 percent, Smith said.
In addition, organizations that receive federal funding--including the Legal Aid Bureau, the state's largest legal services provider--are barred from assisting illegal workers or immigrants who have only temporary work permits.
The report criticized several state agencies in particular for failing to eliminate language barriers, saying they may be violating state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
For example, the report said that the state workers' compensation commission has no Spanish-speaking employees and that none of Maryland's employment standards or occupational safety investigators speak Spanish. Even the Maryland Human Relations Commission, the agency responsible for fighting discrimination in employment and housing, fails the state's Hispanic residents, the report said.
When a Casa de Maryland staff member tried in Spanish to get help from the agency, a receptionist responded by stating that nobody there spoke Spanish--and hanging up.