VINCENTE CRUZ spent five months in D.C. Jail awaiting trial on simple assault and weapons possession charges. If he had been able to post $1,000 bond he would have been freed, but he didn't understand the process because he doesn't speak English. To make matters worse, his court-appointed attorney didn't speak Spanish either. Not until a social worker discovered Mr. Cruz in his cell and managed to find him a bilingual attorney was he able to raise the bond and secure his freedom. The charges eventually were dropped.
Superior Court Judge Ricardo Urbina says that while the Cruz case is an especially bad example of the treatment of non-English-speaking persons in the court system, the case is not unique. Funds are available, for example, to provide translators for indigents in criminal trials, but no help is guaranteed on a systematic basis for non-English speakers who are not eligible for free legal assistance. Nor are there translators in civil courts for landlord-tenant, traffic and small claims cases.
Court administrators are usually able to find a Spanish speaker somewhere in the social services bureau to help out in court. But this kind of ad hoc response can fail, as it did in the Cruz case. Nor would such a system be of much use to someone whose only language is something more exotic than Spanish.
Judge Urbina has taken steps to oversee the translation of important legal notices and documents into Spanish. But a more comprehensive solution is needed. Court officials have asked for an appropriation of $5,000 to contract with a local university to provide translators in any language as needed.
Washington, an international city, takes pride in its cultural diversity. Smaller communities without the same mix of tourists, refugees and non-Engish- speaking residents may be able to cope with language problems in their courts on an ad hoc basis, but this city cannot.