US Criminal Justice Agencies’ Language Access Programs Fall Short of Requirements

Language Access Research

A May 2023 report from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) found that despite legal obligations to provide meaningful language access for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP), many criminal justice-related organizations and agencies struggle to quantify needs and actualize best practices. 

Nancy Rodriguez, a UCI Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society, and Meghan Ballard, a doctoral candidate in the same department, presented the report, Establishing, Implementing, and Maintaining a Language Access Program.

“While national guidance for improving language accessibility exists, the extent to which language services are available in local justice systems is relatively unknown,” they wrote. “The purpose of this policy brief is to elevate language services in local criminal justice systems alongside criminal justice reform efforts.”

In the US, recipients of federal financial assistance are required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide LEP individuals with “meaningful access” to their programs and activities. The major methods used to offer such access include in-language communication, telephonic interpretation (OPI), and the translation of vital documents.

To form an accurate picture of current policies and practices in criminal justice agencies, Rodriguez and Ballard sent out a 39-question survey to non-government and federal agencies whose work is connected to the criminal justice system.

The researchers received 15 complete survey responses from respondents, including county and district courts, corrections agencies, law enforcement agencies, and district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, among others.

“Though most respondents report having language access resources and practices, […] there are significant gaps in the provision of translated content and public announcements, as well as a lack of knowledge about whether their organization or agency addresses language access complaints or collects data on language services,” the report stated.

Discrepancies Across Languages

Most respondents (86.7%) have contact with LEP communities. The majority have daily interactions with Spanish speakers, and some have frequent contact with LEP individuals speaking non-Spanish languages. 

However, only about two-thirds (66.7%) of all respondents reported having internal language access plans or policies. Less than half (46.7%) have a Language Access Coordinator.

Most frequently, employees use OPI and on-site interpreting to communicate with LEP individuals — 87% of respondents have OPI contracts in place, and more than half have a non-emergency hotline for callers speaking languages other than English. 

But the authors observed a lack of in-language communication and written translation for almost all languages other than Spanish, noting, “A robust language program would ideally have all four of these language services available for the common languages spoken in their area.”

This asymmetry is reflected in responses to other questions. Although more than half of respondents report having translated materials, “there are some languages for which no written translation is provided by any of the respondents.” 

Similarly, less than half of respondents have posted notices translated into languages other than English, and all of those have been translated only into Spanish.

Interestingly, of the 61.5% respondents with a social media presence, 25% have translated at least a portion of content posted to their social media accounts; 46.2% of all respondents have translated some of their website content.

Another resource for criminal justice entities can be bilingual or multilingual employees, which approximately 94% of respondents have on staff. But attracting and retaining them can be tough.

Less than half of respondents offer pay differentials to employees who use their language skills on the job. Pay differentials vary widely, from a flat rate of USD 60 or more per paycheck to a 3-5% pay increase per paycheck.

Requirements vs. Reality

While the most severe institutional barriers to providing language services vary widely by organization, respondents cited limited budgets, a lack of resources, and inadequate training. Ironically, while virtual language services have expanded access for many users, some respondents identified the need for increased WiFi access in facilities as a challenge.

According to the authors, gathering, measuring, and analyzing language services data is “perhaps the most important and least emphasized aspect of language access planning.”

But less than half of respondents (40%) collect data on how frequently language services are accessed, which makes it impossible to track population changes and measure the effectiveness of available language services. 

Rodriguez and Ballard recommended that organizations invest in and leverage human capital to improve language access. 

In addition to hiring or appointing a Language Access Coordinator, agencies should encourage bilingual and multilingual applicants to apply for job postings, and retain staff through pay differentials as well as other, non-financial incentives. Institutions can also collaborate to create, maintain, and standardize shared resources, such as certain translations.