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Illinois State Senate Approves Bill to Expand Participation of Non-English Speaking Jurors

Posted on in Criminal Defense

illinoisRecently, Illinois Senate approved a bill, SB 977 that would expand the use of foreign language interpreters in criminal proceedings.  Formerly under Illinois law a juror would have to be county resident, age 18 or older, and “free from all legal exception, of fair character, of approved integrity, of sound judgment, well informed, and able to understand the English language.” The new bill seeks to remove the English language requirement for jurors in Illinois’s five largest counties.

Senate Bill 977 proposes a two-year pilot program in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, and Will Counties that provides court interpreters to jurors in the select counties who do not speak English as their first language. Specifically, the bill states:

“If any juror's predominant language is not English, the juror may be accompanied by an interpreter. In the case of a non-English speaking juror, the interpreter shall be available throughout the actual trial and may accompany and communicate with the juror throughout any period during which the jury is sequestered or engaged in its deliberations.”

The bill also specifies that interpreter fees shall be paid by the county. As part of the two-year experimental program, participating counties must collect information on the languages requested, the cost of the program, and the extent to which interpreters are used. This bill makes Illinois the first U.S. state to offer language assistance to jurors even though the state does not have a state constitutional provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of language.

According to state Senator Iris Martinez, who secured Senate passage of the bill, the law’s purpose would be to “ensure an inclusive juror pool while protecting the integrity of the judicial process.”

Illinois’s House of Representatives must first consider and approve the bill before the governor can sign it into law.

Statistical Demand to Bridge the Language Gap

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of non-native English speakers in Illinois who report they speak English “very well” is 57.3 percent, and another 20.7 percent of non-native English speaking Illinois inhabitants said they spoke English “well.”

The percentage of people who may be able to benefit from an interpreter may be higher in the Chicago area. Large metropolitan areas like Chicago contain higher proportions of non-native English speakers because of economic opportunities in these places and because the large cities often act as a port into the country. An estimated 29 percent of people in the greater Chicago metropolitan area speak a language other than English at home.  

What This Means for Criminal Defendants

The proposed law could make some non-native English speaking defendants more feel more secure that they are being judged by a jury of their peers. Such an experience can be particularly important in cases where a defendant’s English language speaking ability is a central issue of the case. For example, a fellow non-native English speaking juror could be in a better position to judge whether a non-native English speaking defendant actually did understand that the property he received was stolen. Similarly, a non-native English juror may have more insight on whether to believe a defendant who claims not to have understood his Miranda warnings before giving a confession.

Alternatively, opponents of the proposed pilot program are concerned about the cost of the project. Funding interpreters could divert limited financial resources from other valuable criminal court programs or facilities throughout the state.

Illinois criminal defense attorneys at Kathryn L. Harry & Associates, P.C. understand that defending oneself from criminal accusations can be a harrowing experience, regardless of one’s English speaking abilities. We focus on listening to our client’s stories and their individual needs before crafting a case strategy designed to minimize consequences to our clients. Call us today at (630) 472- 9700 to schedule a consultation at no cost.

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