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The number of Nevada residents who are not fluent in English jumped almost 50 percent over the last decade. And that increase has led to a growing demand for interpreter services in Nevada's courts.
As Jude Joffe-Block of member station KJZZ reports, courts are having a tough time meeting that demand because of shrinking budgets.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: It's mid-day and Carol Partiguian is rushing to an appointment at the Clark County jail downtown. She's the only Spanish language interpreter in the county public defender's office, which means she's usually in a hurry.
CAROL PARTIGUIAN: With 100-plus attorneys that we have in the office, it's very hard for one person to be able to help everybody.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Last year alone, those 100-plus public defenders handled more than 4,000 cases with Spanish-speaking defendants. That's about one-third of their caseload. They need more staff interpreters, but there isn't the money to hire them.
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JOFFE-BLOCK: Inside the jail, Partiguian and public defender, Steve Yeager, are waiting in a small room for a guard to bring in a client.
STEVE YEAGER: We really wouldn't have all that much to talk about if Carol weren't here. I mean, I speak some Spanish, but obviously not - I'm not fluent. So, it would probably be us just looking at each other and trying to communicate.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The inmate comes in wearing a blue uniform. Yeager begins chatting and Partiguian jumps in to interpret.
YEAGER: Has somebody interviewed you yet?
JOFFE-BLOCK: The client's sentencing date for a minor drug offense is coming up and Yeager asks her if she's already had an interview with the probation office. Partiguian interprets her response.
PARTIGUIAN: Yes. The details was that when they were interviewing me, they had the paper of another person. It wasn't my paper.
YEAGER: They had the wrong person?
JOFFE-BLOCK: It's a mix-up that the attorney can get fixed, but the exchange shows the kind of critical errors that could plague a case if attorney and client can't understand each other.
PHILIP COHEN: We've had this influx of more Spanish-speaking clients, but we have not had the resources to hire more people.
JOFFE-BLOCK: That's Philip Cohen, who heads the county public defenders' office.
COHEN: So, as we get out of this recession, I'm hoping that the county will find the resources to hire more Spanish-speaking interpreters, but it's just a matter of resources.
JOFFE-BLOCK: And resources are in short supply. This past year, the county's court interpreter program received the lowest level of funding in at least seven years, less than $760,000, a 28 percent decrease from what the court spent on interpreters the year before. In civil courts across the state, claimants sometimes have to shoulder the cost of an interpreter themselves.
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JOFFE-BLOCK: That's the case for truck driver Ruben Vargas, a father who's caught up in a custody battle in family court and doesn't speak English.
RUBEN VARGAS: (Through translator) The cost is $80 for two or three minutes.
JOFFE-BLOCK: It's actually $80 an hour, but Vargas has to pay the whole hour for just a short time in court. He's had to do this half a dozen times since he takes his ex to court whenever she doesn't let him see their six-year-old boy.
VARGAS: (Through translator) I didn't expect that I would have to pay. I thought it would be free. I thought there were people in the court to help people, but there isn't.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Clark County's court say no one is being denied an interpreter and that claimants can request one for free if they can't afford one. But that option isn't widely advertised. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has mandated that all courts receiving federal funds must always provide free interpreters in all settings. The DOJ has already cracked down on a few state courts that it says are out of compliance, including Colorado and North Carolina. Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas says this interpreter mandate, while important, is coming at a financially difficult time.
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: We're struggling to meet the basic obligation of giving people their day in court.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Nevada's courts have been slammed by budget cuts, resulting in layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs.
DOUGLAS: At one point, you say provide this assistance for those with language needs, but it will not do them any good if we can't keep our court doors open. So the question is how to balance it.
JOFFE-BLOCK: And that balance has to be struck soon since the demand for interpreters is on the rise. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.