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Associated Press

Courts Respond To Rise Of Virginia's Spanish-Speaking Population

July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - Gasper Salas Tentzohua came to Lynchburg eight months ago with a simple intention: to work. The 22-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, found a job at a local restaurant where his uncle had once been employed.

But Tentzohua's plans were interrupted June 22, when he was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery on a 17-year-old female he used to work with. Unable to speak English, Tentzohua finds himself in the unfamiliar world of the American criminal justice system, held without bond in the Lynchburg jail awaiting a July 14 trial.

Fortunately for Tentzohua, Virginia's criminal justice system has protocols to help defendants, witnesses and victims who do not speak English. The state picks up the tab for interpreters appointed to criminal cases.

In fiscal year 2002, 36,625 people were served by language interpreters in Virginia criminal cases, at a cost of $2.7 million to taxpayers. It is a necessary expense, according to Elvia Hudson, a legal assistant and language specialist for the Lynchburg law firm of Sanzone & Baker.

"You cannot communicate even the smallest things, like, 'I need a glass of water or a restroom,"' said Hudson, who is interpreting for Tentzohua. "It's hard. Sometimes the inmates will call just to have someone to talk to that they understand."

The number of non-English-speaking defendants in Virginia promises to increase as more Hispanics - now about 12.5 percent of the nation's population and its largest minority group - continue to arrive.

In 1990, there were 155,353 Hispanics in Virginia, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Ten years later, that figure had more than doubled, and Hispanics comprised 4.7 percent of the state's population.

Hudson said construction and farming jobs are helping draw Spanish speakers to central Virginia. The area's school systems reflect the change, with more students receiving limited-English-proficiency services. In Lynchburg, for example, there were 16 students in those programs in 1992 and 64 in 2002, according to Virginia Department of Education data.

The need for and cost of interpreters have reflected these numbers.

In fiscal year 2000, 21,060 people were appointed as language interpreters in Virginia criminal matters at a cost of $1.5 million. Both figures nearly doubled two years later, and many more defendants provide interpreters privately. Spanish interpreters make up the majority of interpreters - about 91 percent in 2002.

The Virginia Supreme Court developed a certification process for Spanish interpreters in 1995. The court sponsors two-day orientation sessions that cost participants $100. The court tries to have a session each year. However, because of budgetary constraints, there have been no such sessions since February 2001.

During the class, participants take a 100-question, multiple-choice English language vocabulary test. Those who score 70 percent or better are eligible for a three-part oral exam, which costs $150 to take.

To pass the oral exam, participants must be able to interpret from Spanish to English and vice versa in writing and speech. Those who score 70 percent or more on all parts become certified interpreters.

The Virginia Supreme Court encourages all courts to use only certified interpreters, although it is not required.

In Virginia's 24th Judicial District - which serves the cities of Bedford and Lynchburg and the counties of Campbell, Bedford, Amherst and Nelson - there are about 27 certified Spanish interpreters.

"It's a real feather in your cap," said Jory Fisher, a Lynchburg assistant public defender who handles most of her office's cases that involve Hispanics.

Although she is not certified as an interpreter, she has lived in Puerto Rico and is fluent in Spanish. "That helps a lot with interviews," she said. "It's just a real blessing for me, and I would think the client, too."

The Virginia Supreme Court is considering certification programs in Vietnamese and Korean - the next two most common languages needed for interpreter services in 2002. The programs' development depends on state funds being made available.

Fisher used to interpret in courts in Fairfax County, where there was a citizen committee to direct Hispanic people in trouble with the law to the services they needed. "That was ideal," Fisher said. "The word got out."

Tentzohua may not be around long enough to see such a group in Lynchburg. His plan all along was to return to Mexico after a year of working in Virginia.

But as Tentzohua's defense attorney Joseph Sanzone pointed out at a bond hearing last week, the United States has increasingly become part of a continental world, and more people are likely to follow Tentzohua's path in the future.

Sanzone - who 10 years ago defended about three Spanish-speaking clients a year but now handles that many each month - said he and others in the justice system will be prepared. "We'll adapt to the changing situation as lawyers have always done," he said.

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