Federal probe finds NC courts discriminate

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- A federal investigation has determined the North Carolina court system routinely discriminates against those who do not speak English, resulting in harsher penalties and longer jail sentences.

The finding was issued Thursday to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts in an 18-page report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

If the state does not make voluntary efforts to come into compliance, the court system could be stripped of millions in federal funding and grants.

The Justice Department could also file suit against the state in federal court.

Though state courts often provide translators to non-English speakers, the federal review said that having court house employees aid criminal defendants presents a conflict of interest.

In other cases documented by investigators, no translator was provided for
those whose limited familiarity with English, impeding their ability to understand complex legal proceedings.

North Carolina's courts currently spend about $1.4 million a year on court interpreters, from a statewide system budget of nearly $464 million.

``Adequate funding is a vital aspect of compliance, and we recognize that many state and local court systems around the country are struggling with budgetary constraints,'' said the
letter signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.

``However, fiscal pressures are not a blanket exemption from civil rights requirements.''

A spokeswoman for the state courts stressed that legislators set the system's budget and said there had been requests for additional funding for interpreters, even as the agency's funding has been cut.

``We are disappointed in DOJ's finding that interpreters are not being provided under state law and NCAOC policy, but believe DOJ's examples to be isolated cases,'' said Sharon Gladwell, the communications director for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

Expanding court interpreter services is an issue the North Carolina takes seriously. NCAOC is committed to continue doing as much as possible to improve access to justice for individuals with limited English proficiency.''

The state has until March 29 to tell the Justice Department whether the state is interested in negotiating a settlement, or whether the parties will fight it out in court.

The DOJ letter lists other states that have cooperated with federal officials to increase services for people with limited proficiency in English, including Colorado, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania.

Among the nation's fastest growing states, North Carolina is increasingly becoming home to immigrants from all over the world.

The federal report says about 10 percent of the state's 9.5 million residents speak a language other than English, with Spanish-speakers making up the largest group.

Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. Census data shows the number of people who identified themselves as Hispanic more than doubled to more than 800,000, or about 8.4 percent of the state's total population.

The federal report also found there are tens of thousands of North Carolina residents whose primary language is Vietnamese, Mandarin and Arabic.

The federal probe was triggered by a complaint filed by the non-profit N.C. Justice Center on behalf of the Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society of

Jack Holtzman, the staff attorney at the Justice Center who filed the complaint, said he hopes the state courts agree to work with Justice officials make voluntary improvements.

``This is about a fundamental right, which is an equal shot at justice,'' Holtzman said.

The federal investigation found people who don't speak English well often faces the greatest challenges with courts in the same small, rural counties often dependent on migrant labor. But there were problems found in urban areas as well.

In some eastern North Carolina counties, the investigators found that Spanish-speaking prosecutors were sometimes translating the statements for the court of the very defendants they were trying to send to jail.

In another case, a defense lawyer reported that a man was held on a domestic violence charge for weeks without a proper hearing because no translator could be found.

Katy Parker, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the state should ``take any and all actions necessary'' to comply with federal law by providing limited-English speakers with the proper resources to access state court proceedings.

``A person's right to due process and equal access to our legal system should in no way depend on their national origin or ability to speak English,'' Parker said. ``To ensure that we are all equal before the law, North Carolina's courts must be equally accessible
to everyone.''

Credit: The Associated Press.