Access to Sign Language Interpreters in the Criminal Justice System

By Miller, Katrina R. | American Annals of the Deaf, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Access to Sign Language Interpreters in the Criminal Justice System


Miller, Katrina R., American Annals of the Deaf


Historically, the provision of sign language interpreters to deaf suspects, defendants, and offenders has been a problematic issue in the criminal justice system. Inconsistency in the provision of interpreter services results largely from the ignorance of criminal justice professionals regarding deaf people's communication needs and accommodation options. Through analysis of 22 post-Americans with Disabilities Act cases and a survey of 46 professional sign language interpreters working in criminal justice settings, the present study considered access issues concerning sign language interpreters in law enforcement, courtrooms, and correctional settings. Recommendations to increase the accessibility of interpreting services include providing ongoing awareness training to criminal justice personnel, developing training programs for deaf legal advocates, and continuing access studies.

In New York, a deaf woman shot and killed her abusive husband, and had a physical breakdown immediately after (New York v. Ripic, 1992). In her hospital room, police attempted to interrogate her by having the child of a deaf neighbor act as an interpreter. An incarcerated deaf man was provided with another inmate to interpret for him at internal hearings, an arrangement that put him in danger when the details of his crime were leaked to the general prison population (Bonner v. Lewis, Crowley, & Vega, 1988). A deaf man in Georgia charged with possession of marijuana was interrogated by police using fingerspelling and notewriting (Georgia v. Hendrix, 1996). In yet another case, the mother of a deaf man charged with a shooting assisted with the facilitation of communication during his trial (Palermo v. Olivarez, 2000). While these cases read like a page from history prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; PL 101336), with the exception of one case, all have occurred following the enactment of ADA.

According to the U.S. Constitution, all Americans who interact with the criminal justice system have due process rights (Vernon & Cole, 1978; Vernon, Raifman, & Greenberg, 1996). The right to interpreting services in the delivery of due process can only be implied by the Constitution. With the passing of ADA, access to interpreters for deaf defendants became mandated by federal statute. Yet the provision of this fundamental civil right to deaf defendants remains a problematic issue in the criminal justice system. Failure to provide due process to a deaf defendant often hinges on the justice system's lack of awareness of the communication needs of deaf persons.

With the objective of contributing to understanding of the scope and nature of access to interpreters within the criminal justice system, I conducted a review of 22 recent court cases and a survey of 46 professional sign language interpreters working in criminal justice settings across the nation.

Access to Interpreters in the Courtroom

Currently, there is no known tracking system in use by individual states that records information about the amount of contact between people with hearing loss and the criminal justice system (Vernon & Greenberg, 1999). Estimates of the number of deaf people who interact with the system have been obtained primarily by conducting hearing screenings among jail populations (jensema, 1990) and reviewing court records to locate requests for interpreting services (Alston, 1997/1998; Whalen, 1981). These methods yield only a portion of the desired information, as there are simply no records available that accurately recount how many deaf people have been taken into custody and subsequently released, or how many have passed through the courts and correctional facilities with a complete lack of access to interpretation services.

In 1997, the interpreting department of Deaf Options, Inc., a Detroitbased mental health and deaf services agency, reported an increase in court-- requested services since 1992 (Alston, 1997/1998). …

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Access to Sign Language Interpreters in the Criminal Justice System
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