High cost of interpreters hits local courts
By Patrick Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Cities and counties in metro Atlanta are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on interpreter services in local courts for defendants who don’t speak English.
Gwinnett County, which has one of the most diverse populations in the region, spent $539,803 in 2009 on interpreters in its court system, according to figures supplied by the county to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Cobb’s Superior Court spent $255,563 last year.
The issue arose most recently in Alpharetta, whose City Council was presented last week with a contract for up to $40,000 for interpreter services in municipal court for fiscal 2011, up from about $27,500 in the previous year.
Council members’ brows furrowed further when they learned that the contract paid $48.99 per hour for interpreter services with a two-hour minimum per session, and that interpreters would also bill 55 cents per mile with an average round trip of 40 miles.
“I need to get a Rosetta Stone [language lesson CD],” said Councilman D.C. Aiken. “That’s not a bad gig.”
Aiken objected that the city is being forced to provide a service to many people who are neither residents nor taxpayers in Alpharetta and may not be in the country legally. The figures supplied by the cities and counties on interpreters for non-English speakers do not include the immigration status of these defendants; many are likely illegal immigrants, but some may be legal residents.
Georgia law requires that all defendants who lack skills in English be provided an interpreter. However, there is no uniform statewide compensation system. If the court approves a pauper’s affidavit in any civil case, an interpreter is furnished at no cost.
The Supreme Court of Georgia has adopted rules providing that “cost can be assessed when appropriate.” This allows the court to charge the cost of the interpreter — unless it is an interpreter under the American Disability Act — back to the defendant.
“It’s not a clearly defined issue, but the general consensus across the board is that if you’ve got a substantial portion of your population [unskilled in English], then you need to make those services available,”Alpharetta City Attorney Sam Thomas told the council.
Some courts in metro Atlanta deal have found ways to curb the expense.
Roswell Municipal Court Administrator Robby Barkley said the city has reduced its costs by using Spanish-speaking employees for bond hearings.
“We were just to a point where we were spending so much, we just decided to see how we could best utilize them for bond hearings and some trial sessions where there are only one or two cases,” he said.
The city spent $32,783 on municipal court interpreters last year, he said, but that’s down from $45,000 in 2007. Using city staff for interpreter services accounted for $7,000 of that savings.
Speaking at a budget hearing last year, Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Tom Davis said the courts required interpreters for 42 languages over the previous 12 months.
Gwinnett saw its costs for interpreters jump 8 percent from 2007 to 2008, going from $500,000 to $542,000. The cost fell slightly last year to $539,803. Early this year, the county reduced its pay rate for interpreters and has estimated the move will save it $80,000.
Interpreter expenses for Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton were all down slightly last year.
Tony Day, court administrator and clerk in Johns Creek, said it’s difficult to plan for interpreters’ expenses.
“It just depends on the clientele we get out here,” he said. “You can never tell.”
One big factor, he said, is how many police are on the streets writing traffic citations. Another factor for Johns Creek is its diverse population. The city is home to large populations of immigrants — legal and illegal — speaking Russian, Hispanic, Farsi and Korean.
“These people have to have due process,” he said. “They have to know what they’re being charged with and what their rights are, and you can’t do that in English if they speak Farsi or they speak Russian or they speak Spanish or Korean or any other language.”
8A Translators charges Johns Creek $50 an hour for Spanish and $60 an hour for all other languages. Each carries a two-hour minimum and a mileage charge.
In Gwinnett, home to Georgia’s largest Hispanic population, Lawrenceville Municipal Court has a Spanish-speaking interpreter certified by the Georgia Commission of Interpreters available each session of court. It retains interpreters for other languages as needed.
The cost and need for interpreters has run steady the past several years, said Jane Gaguski, court administrator.
“The only short cut we are considering is to only provide an interpreter for specific scheduled court appearance dates,” she said. “This would require the court to give a non-English speaking person a written notice [usually in Spanish] to return to court on a date when an interpreter will be available.”
Interpreter costs for area municipal courts
2008 2009 2010
Alpharetta $27,256 $26,942 $27,453
Duluth $1,800 $2,000 $1,800
Johns Creek $32,158 $48,608 $29,573
Lawrenceville $49,705 $48,400 $33,186
Milton $7,708 $6,301 $4,113
Johns Creek’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Its 2010 figure is through late July. Lawrenceville’s figure is for eight months, and Milton’s is for 10 months.
Interpreter costs for county superior courts
2007 2008 2009
Cobb $231,938 $268,314 $255,563
DeKalb $57,418 $58,530 $46,517
Fulton $130,119 $122,704 $118,756
Gwinnett* $500,138 $542,060 $539,803
*Gwinnett numbers are for all courts (state, recorders, superior, etc.)