Publication date: Tuesday, August 28, 2012

You have been found guilty
Kimball Perry

It wasn't a major crime, but it could have cost Avtandil Kechaghmadze his job.

As the native of the country of Georgia stood before Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ted Berry, a blond woman leaned in to Kechaghmadze and spoke softly to him.

Inna Owens repeated to Kechaghmadze exactly what the judge was saying – in Russian. Kechaghmadze, 65, of West Chester, speaks Georgian, some Russian and a little English.

Owens, 44, of Anderson Township, is one of several interpreters Hamilton County hires on a per hour basis for the dozens of languages spoken by those charged with crimes. Last year, Hamilton County had 3,195 court hearings where interpreters were used.

"The court has to provide equal access to justice, so they have to provide interpreters," Kevin Mercado, director of Hamilton County's interpreter program, said.

The 3,195 court hearings last year in Hamilton County requiring interpreters was 3.2 percent of the overall 100,257 criminal cases in Common Pleas and Municipal courts. Interpreters are needed an average of 10 times each day in Hamilton County.

Those numbers are important because it shows the growth of the need for interpreters, said Rob Cruz, chair of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators.

"The demand for interpreters is increasing and will continue to increase across the board," Cruz said. "The need for interpreters in the next decade will see a 20 percent growth ... nationwide."

That's why, he said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently added interpreters to its Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Interpreters, Cruz noted, are vital to maintaining the integrity of the judicial system and legal rights, including confronting your accuser, due process and the right to have an attorney. "None of those are possible if you don't speak the language," Cruz said.

Hamilton County hired Mercado in 2005 to run its interpreter program; that cost $220,000 last year. The program consists of Mercado, another full-time interpreter and a part-time interpreter. All are Spanish speakers, because Spanish accounted for three-fourths of court hearings using interpreters. Other interpreters are hired as needed and paid by the hour, ranging from $16 to $100.

Kechaghmadze was driving a 2009 Ford van June 14 in the 2300 block of Auburn Avenue when he drove the van into the back of another car that then hit the back of the car in front of it.

Initially, he was ticketed for failure to maintain an assured clear distance. As a medical supplies company driver, a conviction for a driving infraction could have been ominous.

"My understanding is he'll lose his job if he pleads guilty to" the original charge, Assistant Cincinnati Solicitor Heidi Rosales told the judge.

The case was resolved when Kechaghmadze agreed to be convicted of the reduced charge of improper lights.

The judge convicted Kechaghmadze and ordered him to pay a $50 fine and $122 in court costs. He did that minutes later, ending the case.

On Berry's docket the same day was another case that required a sign language interpreter for a hearingimpaired defendant. In the court next door, a defendant needed a French interpreter.

The interpreters are so busy that last week the Hamilton County's Municipal Court signed a contract with Blue Ash-based Affordable Language Services. The contract calls for the county to pay the company $66,000 per year. The contract can be renewed yearly through 2017.

It is the breadth of languages for which interpreters are needed that caught the attention of Jeffrey Timberlake, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of sociology.

"The diversity of the immigrant – and therefore inmate population – is interesting and perhaps somewhat surprising," Timberlake said.

Need for interpreter

a microcosm of area

Hamilton County, he said, has a small number of foreign-born residents, those most likely to need an interpreter. Of its 802,000 population, 37,145, or 4.6 percent, are foreign-born. That's about half of the 1012 percent of foreign-born residents nationally, he added.

Within Hamilton County's foreign-born population, there is a wide variety:

Eastern Europeans – 7 percent of the foreign-born population;

Asians – 34 percent;

Latin Americans – 24 percent;

Africans – 15 percent.

Sometimes, Mercado said, the language or dialect needed is so rare that several languages and interpreters are needed. Often, those are done over the telephone, either in court or the judge's chambers. For a case where Pohnpeian, a dialect spoken in Micronesia, was recently needed, Mercado had to call an interpreter in Hawaii.

Usually, though, the cases are more simple. While Spanish is the dominant language required in interpreter cases, traffic offenses – like in Kechaghmadze's case – account for 80 percent of interpreter cases.

Even Spanish can cause issues, Mercado said, because of the different dialects spoken around the world.

"It's like comparing English spoken in Australia to English spoken in England or here," Mercado said.

His job is done, Mercado said, when no one knows he's there.

"When you get done with a case and it went seamless, that's the most rewarding part of it," he said.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful