Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
According to a complaint filed to the DOJ, Spanish-speaking defendants in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish are being deprived of due process.
Jefferson Parish lies within the New Orleans metro area, and is 14 percent Hispanic. That area has seen its Hispanic population grow rapidly post Katrina. But the local law enforcement has not treated these new residents kindly. After years of being criticized for profiling Latinos, some police departments are finally setting “bias-free” policies. Unfortunately, these changes haven’t touched all corners of the criminal justice system in the state. A day in court for Latinos in Louisiana is still an obstacle course designed for them to fail.
That’s according to a complaint the Southern Poverty Law Center filed to the U.S. Department of Justice this week. In it, the SPLC argues that a traffic court in Jefferson Parish is violating the due process rights of Latino defendants, and essentially profiting from their limited ability to speak English by making them pay more in fines and fees than others.
“The First Parish Court is punishing Latinos for not being fluent in English,” Naomi Tsu, a staff attorney at SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project told CityLab. “It’s not a crime to be Limited English Proficient, but the … court is acting like it is.”
The SPLC complaint details the experiences of four Latinos who were charged with traffic offenses by the court. When they came to court, they were made to sign documents in English, even though they weren’t proficient in the language. All of them were rushed through court proceedings without key details about their cases being explained to them, and all left without really understanding what transpired in the courtroom. Interpreters were available, but defendants had to pay $130 each time they needed one. Often, they weren’t informed in advance that they’d have to foot the bill themselves for this service. “This willingness to treat interpretation as a money-making venture raises the question of whether the court is an impartial arbiter of justice, or a source of tax revenue,” Tsu says.
The judges, in all four cases, mandated English classes as a part of sentencing, classes that cost around $300 for 10 weeks. “The classes were overpriced, operated on an overly punitive model that relied upon mocking and humiliating students, and did not usefully teach English,” the complaint reads.
In short, these defendants ended up paying much more than what a person who spoke fluent English would in the same situation, and that constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. These practices also go against Department of Justice guidelines for dealing with Limited English Proficient individuals in a courtroom setting, which ask for courts to provide free and high-quality interpretation, SPLC argues. (CityLab could not reach First Parish Court administrator Beatrice Parisi, but will update the story if she comments on the complaint.)
But this isn’t just a Jefferson Parish problem, Tsu says. She and her colleagues have noticed that Louisiana courts seem “very willing” to charge for interpreter services that should be free. It’s not surprising or new that these courts are wheedling money out of poor defendants, especially in the context of the funding crisis that Louisiana court systems are facing, which has left defendants in New Orleans locked up without legal defense.
In fact, courts all over the country are ill-equipped to handle cases involving those who speak little or no English. But lack of resources just doesn’t cut it as an excuse for the failure to provide “justice for all.”