Economy and Government

VIEWPOINT: Latinos and the legal system: no free lunch

April 24, 2006

Many issues face national and local civil and criminal justice systems across our nation. Years and years of application of Band-Aid remedies to complicated and longterm problems have brought many government systems to the verge of collapse.

Marion County is no exception to the rule. Courts are strained with overwhelming caseloads. Average lives of cases continue to increase, clogging jails and courts. Public defender and prosecutor caseloads continue to swell, effectively reducing the quality of representation available to both the people of the state of Indiana and the accused. Civil court dockets balloon with new case filings and thousands of redocketed matters each year.

Added to these concerns are the issues facing both civil and criminal justice systems when dealing with litigation involving a foreign national client.

Marion County, for example, has one of the country's fasting-growing Latino populations. Adapting our system to accommodate the special needs and issues facing non-English-speaking victims, witnesses and defendants in criminal cases or the parties in civil litigation is costly and time-consuming.

Interpretation services, seemingly simple on the surface, are, in fact, complicated matters. Unique dialects might demand the services of specially trained interpreters and the same interpreters hired to interpret court proceedings cannot be involved in the confidential client communications required by the attorney-client relationship. State Supreme Court-certified court interpreters are few and far between and expensive when they are available.

Court documents must be translated into the native language of the litigant, requiring hours of revamping standard court forms. Regular communications between clients and their attorneys require translation, including appeals briefs and other legal documents pertinent to the individual case.

Signage, as well as phone and computer services, needs to be modified to accommodate the needs of the foreign national client.

Training of government lawyers and other public servants who serve the foreign national population on topics of culture, special needs and legal concerns unique to a foreign client are required at considerable time and expense to the local tax-based funding systems.

America is certainly a melting pot, and our proud national heritage is a conglomerate of ethnic cultures. Yet the cost in time as well as human and fiscal resources to make our justice systems equally available to foreign nationals living in America is real and expensive.

Recent demonstrations across our nation focused on the system's seeming failure to assimilate and accommodate persons from other countries. Decriminalizing illegal immigrants, and simplifying the procedure to obtain driver's licenses and other basic identification paperwork was the demand heard across the nation, all sparked by proposed legislation that called for increased enforcement of existing immigration and deportation laws.

Other proposed laws called for more harsh treatment for businesses turning a blind eye to the illegal status of the foreign nationals they employ.

I hope the reader can see, even from my limited perspective, the enormous cost in time and human and fiscal resources to accommodate foreign nationals in our justice system. The same issues I have described are common to other identifiable areas that affect our economy, government and, ultimately, our way of life.

Incorporating different cultures into the American way of life is what we do. For there to be an equitable distribution among our citizenry of the benefits, as well as the obligations and duties of living in America, everyone-from government at all levels to private and corporate business-needs to be involved.

We must create governmental and economic systems that encourage and facilitate full, contributing citizenship and discourage illegal entry and immigration status. As demonstrated by this abbreviated look at the fiscal impact of serving foreign nationals in our justice systems, there is no free lunch. Creating ways that those from other countries can come to America, remain legally, contribute to the social services they use, and enjoy the benefits of living in this great land is all any of us wants. This is everyone's issue.



David Cook is Chief Public Defender of Marion County.
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