Alaska News

As need for interpreters grows, Alaska courts look to technology to save money

The Alaska Court System will see hundreds of requests for interpreting services this year, and that volume has staff looking to technology to streamline what can become a complex and costly process.

When a qualified interpreter of a language requested isn't in Alaska, the court system looks Outside, sometimes flying people up for events like trials.

"The reason for that is because many of the courtroom proceedings are really complicated and it takes a really high-level skill to interpret," said Brenda Aiken, Language Services director for the Alaska Court System.

Certified interpreters

Yolanda Martinez-Ley, 52, is one of two court-certified interpreters in Alaska -- a tier above the roughly 20 registered interpreters available to the court system through the Alaska Institute for Justice's Language Interpreter Center. Certified interpreters must pass a rigorous exam and are the preferred people to handle major happenings like criminal trials "that are potentially going to take away someone's liberty," said Stacey Marz, director of the Alaska Court System's Family Law Self-Help Center.

Early on in her life, Martinez-Ley -- who interprets for Spanish speakers -- realized she had a knack for languages. She picked up Bulgarian before studying in the Balkan country, took French and Italian classes and eventually learned English. Originally from Cuba, she lived in Canada before coming to Alaska in 2008. It was in Anchorage that she began her journey to becoming a professional interpreter with help from the Language Interpreter Center. When the court system isn't requesting her services, she works as a freelance interpreter and is also a certified medical interpreter.

Some court events are more grisly than others, Martinez-Ley says. An attempted-murder trial where the defendant made threats in the courtroom sticks out in her mind. She thinks court interpreting has made her more perceptive to when people are lying, but her job requires her to stay neutral and simply interpret what people are saying.

For her, court interpreting is a way to level the playing field for the parties involved in a case. Citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Barb Jacobs -- program manager of the Language Interpreter Center -- says the community also has a responsibility to provide language services. Aiken says the court system has been responsive to "increasing language diversity needs."

"We want to ensure that anyone coming into the court understands to the fullest of their ability what's happening to them, or for them, however you look at that," Aiken said.

Regularly requested

The court system regularly gets requests for interpreting services. Sometimes it's over-the-phone questions about the time of a hearing and sometimes it's an interpreter working a high-profile trial. In the past few years, interpreters have cropped up in several stories covered by media, including a woman being sentenced for $90,000 of Medicaid fraud to a man being sentenced to nine years in prison for shooting his spouse.

Last year, the state court system responded to and fulfilled more than 750 requests for interpreting help. Commonly requested languages include Spanish, Korean, Russian and Tagalog. Yup'ik is the most-requested Alaska Native language, according to court staff, and a project is ongoing to develop a legal glossary in Yup'ik.

To better keep tabs on cases needing interpreting help, the court system hired a statewide interpreter coordinator in October 2014.

Marz and Aiken say the system has seen an uptick in interpreting requests over the years.

"I think it tracks the demographics of Alaska and Anchorage," said Marz of the increase.

A push for more video-remote services

As technology improves, the court system hopes to use more video-remote interpreting as a cost- and time-saving measure by cutting travel out of the picture for the interpreter. Typically, the average national cost per day for credentialed interpreters ranges from $600 to $800. Flights from Outside and hotel accommodations for trials cost hundreds of dollars. When an out-of-state interpreter needs to be flown up to Alaska, the court system tries to use people from the Northwest and use air miles to save money, Aiken said.

With the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, the court system as a whole has budget cuts on the brain.

"I think why we're seriously looking at video-remote interpreting is because we can provide really good service, highly qualified service, hopefully at a reasonable rate," Aiken said.

The Alaska Court System has already started to dabble in video-remote interpreting in places like Anchorage, Bethel and Juneau. In December 2014, during a weeklong trial in Seward, two Somali interpreters participated remotely by video from Washington state.

"We had two highly trained Somali interpreters, the video-remote feed worked well, the interpreter could see the courtroom, the judge could see the interpreter at all times, and the great thing about that is we didn't have to deal with all the travel kerfuffles that could have been possible," said Aiken, noting how bad weather in Alaska can hamper planes' getting off the ground.

Interpreters have also worked video remotely within Alaska, such as from Anchorage to Juneau, Marz said.

"We have the capability in several locations, but not everywhere at the moment because the Internet is by satellite in some places and that creates an unusable lag on the video," said Marz.

Interpreting video remotely also helps Alaska courts get some of the most qualified candidates available and allows interpreters of rarer languages to offer up their services to more courts.

Although the Language Interpreter Center is a "jewel of a vendor" for the court system in terms of training interpreters, "our pool is still small" when it comes to court-certified interpreters, Aiken said.

"It is really, really difficult to get court-certified interpreters to pass the exam," Aiken said.

At the moment, the Alaska Court System is also looking to participate in a pilot project through the National Center for State Courts, which has developed a database of interpreters from different states. State courts will be able to access the database and schedule interpreters listed, Aiken said. A call center will also be available and interpreters can work telephonically and video remotely.

"As far as I'm concerned, I think Alaska as a demonstration site, if it can work here, it can work anywhere," Marz said.