GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – A new initiative in Kent County aims to help victims of and witnesses to a crime who don’t speak English better cooperate and communicate with authorities.
The effort was started a couple of months ago by a coalition including representatives from Kent county courts, local law enforcement agencies, Bethany Christian Services, Safe Haven Ministries, Migrant Legal Aid, the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office and its Victim/Witness Unit.
“We brought this up with the prosecutor’s office and they’ve been very helpful in trying to find a way to find a low-cost solution that can be implemented immediately to stop these problems at once,” said Ben O’Hearn, a staff attorney for Migrant Legal Aid.
All the law enforcement agencies in the county are participating.
“From Sand Lake to Byron Center and every place in between, we want all the officers and police departments using this system so we make sure we get everybody in the county covered,” Kent County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Chris Becker said.
Under new procedures, officers responding to an incident are required to fill out a field on their police report that indicates the victim’s primary language. The language is also specified on warrant request forms. After the paperwork is filed electronically, any follow-up information sent to a victim will automatically be in their language.
“When our victim advocates get it over in the courthouse, they’ll see the documents that need to go out informing the victim of their rights, informing them if a defendant gets out of jail. They have the right to know if the defendant gets out of jail. They can send them those forms in, right now, Spanish because that’s the vast majority of them,” said Becker.
Migrant Legal Aid translated the letters from the prosecutor’s office into Spanish.
A language barrier was a problem for Hermelindo Isidro Barrios Velasco, his wife, Maria Antonia Mora Maldonado, and their son, Jose Guadalupe Diaz Mora, after a 2013 incident. While working on a fruit farm, Velasco and Mora were attacked by a co-worker with a knife. Velasco suffered stab wounds to his arm and Mora was stabbed in the abdomen. They both required medical assistance.
“My husband hugged me and said, ‘Do not worry, nothing happened,’ but I could see that he was bleeding a lot, too,” Maldonado recalled Wednesday, speaking in Spanish.
The family had trouble with the restitution portion of the attacker’s sentencing. They had to have their hospital bills approved by a doctor so they could be compensated for the time they couldn’t work because the courts required the documentation — but they didn’t know that because the instructions they got were in English.
Becker and O’Hearn said the consequences can be more dire that that.
“You get something in English that says, ‘Hey, you need to show up for court next week at 2 o’clock.’ Well, you can’t read it, so you don’t show up. Then all of a sudden, we don’t have a victim, we don’t have a witness, we’ve got to dismiss the case or try to scramble and find it,” Becker explained. “And they may be in fear, they may not be able to let the jail know, ‘If this guy posts bond, I want to be let know.'”
“It may mean that you’re no longer a candidate for a U visa, which is a special humanitarian visa designed to help victims of a crime, or it may mean that the person that assaulted you walks free because there’s no evidence to help keep them in jail,” O’Hearn said.
Victims who don’t speak English often have mistrust of the system, according to Becker.
“We’re used to trusting the system to some extent whereas very often in these other countries, it’s a very corrupt system, so police and courts and stuff are just something people definitely try to avoid, so we have to overcome that fear as well,” he said.
Becker said the prosecutor’s office has record of about 97 cases in 2015 that involved a victim of a crime who didn’t speak English, but there could have been more because the system specifying language wasn’t yet in place. Since starting the initiative, he said, there have already been three cases involving non-English speaking victims that were indicated on the new forms.
“I appreciate Migrant Legal Aid for bringing it to our attention because if we don’t know about it, it’s hard for us to correct it. Obviously, if victims of crimes don’t get the appropriate paperwork and aren’t getting information to participate in the process, that concerns us because the Crime Victims’ Rights Act says all victims have a right. It doesn’t say English-speaking victims, it’s got to be all victims. We want to take steps to correct any problems we’re having reaching out to the population that doesn’t speak English and are victims of crimes,” Becker said.
“By gaining that cooperation, I think everyone’s role in this is clarified, it’s strengthened and we can come to justice more effectively, more efficiently and much, much quicker,” O’Hearn said.
Migrant Legal Aid hopes to take the initiative statewide and has contacted lawmakers for their input.
“We need to make sure that this happens on a statewide level and not just limited to Kent County, and find a way to evaluate success and if it’s not working, we need to find something else that will,” O’Hearn said.
One of the perks of the system Kent County is using, O’Hearn said, is that it’s pretty inexpensive.
“If we ask every single county and every single department in Michigan to change the software used, that could be very, very cost prohibitive, especially if the legislature isn’t willing to fund that change. However, with this change, little bit of police officers saying, ‘Hey, whenever you see a victim who’s a different language, you need to make a note here,’ you don’t need to change the software. There’s no drastic increase in time involvement, so the only big change is going to be with making sure those initial mailings, you have a standard template up. It’s a small cost, but the long-term effects are very, very helpful,” he explained.