Category Archives: SOCIAL JUSTICE


Sometimes, I am left shaking my head at the way things are done.  A drunk driver is put on some kind of monitoring to make sure the court can easily discover if he begins drinking again.  Great idea and very useful for public safety.  It is also a great support for the individual because close monitoring is one of the best supports for establishing sobriety.  In serious cases, we  have a multi-million dollar monitoring brand that provides a couple thousand dollars worth of equipment to each individual – a complete set of everything they will need to be continuously monitored at home – except for the magnet they need to activate this equipment.  All the rest of the cords and plugs, straps and monitors are provided.  Just not the magnet.

Clients sign all kinds of paperwork swearing they will not tamper with or alter the equipment.  They watch a video on how to use it, and are personally instructed.  By definition, they have suspended licenses at this point in the process, so most of the people I work with are taking various buses to get around.  They tend to live in the suburbs because it is more affordable.  So they do not live in walking communities or have lots of stores nearby.

Did I mention they are not from around here, familiar with the area, or English-speaking?  Many of them also work very long hours at several low-paying jobs.  Fitting in treatment and court and keeping their jobs is a challenge.  A challenge they deserve, you might say, as they chose to drink and drive.  Fine.  I still argue that there are enough difficulties inherent in the system without setting them up for failure.  They will be inconvenienced and punished throughout the five years of their probation.  There is no societal benefit to creating a risk of failure based on something that is not related to drinking or driving.

Offenders are fitted with an anklet that will remotely and continuously monitor any alcohol intake through skin perspiration.  It is top of the line and highly sensitive.  They are warned not to use any bodywashes, aftershave, perfumes, or even teeth-whitening toothpastes, as these and many other products contain alcohol.   They are instructed on where to plug in the unit’s base so they can download their data via a telephone line.  And how to shower without damaging the anklet.  There is a lot of tension in the room during these sessions, because there is a lot at stake.  If they cannot figure out how to use the equipment correctly, they could go to jail.  They will certainly be called in for a hearing.  And if they miss their hearing, a bench warrant will issue.  Even if they have not been drinking.

The equipment is very high tech.  The latest and the best.  Each set of equipment costs several thousand dollars, and each offender signs an agreement to replace it if it gets damaged.  The company apparently makes their money by leasing the equipment and getting paid for the monitoring.  I do not know how much the court pays, but the individual at this time pays a startup fee and then pays 12 dollars a day in order to be monitored.   That adds up to around 360 dollars a month per offender.  I also looked up the company website, and if you click on wanting to become one of their sales people, you are asked if you have $50,000 dollars in capital to invest.  So I have a strong feeling that they are making a good profit.

Clients are sent directly from court to set up monitoring.   They meet with a monitoring representative, who carefully trains them, takes their first payment, sets them up with all their equipment, and then tells them the following.

“So you’re all set!  This is everything you need to go home and get monitored.  Except, see this magnet?  You will need to find one of these.  No, we don’t have one for you.  It is not included.  No, we cannot sell one to you.  You have to go find it on your own.  No, I don’t know where they sell them.  Maybe a drug store?  Or maybe not – no, it is not like a refrigerator magnet.  It is a special magnet.  I don’t know what it’s called.  Just try to find one that is shaped like this, a rectangle, and this size.  Maybe try a hardware store?  It has to be strong.  I don’t know how strong.  No, I don’t have a picture or it or the name of it or the size or anything.  Sorry.  But it looks like this.  You’ll have to go around and find one somehow by today because you have to get hooked up and download the readings today.  Otherwise you will be in violation and we will have to report you and you could go to jail.  Oh, you’re on the bus?  Gee, that’s too bad.  Too bad we don’t have the magnets.  But here’s all the rest of your equipment.  Good luck!”



I only saw snippets of the landmark trial of our local mass murderer who got away with years of killing young women specifically because they were underprivileged workers and runaways.  The victims were not considered high priority.  Years went by before their killer was found and convicted.  A caring detective kept on the trail, and healed many hearts in the process, although he could not, of course, bring back the dead.  Which is why forgiveness is so hard – you can never get back what you lost, so how can you forgive? And why would you even want to?

I used to wait for a bus to community college right along the strip where we later found out that this killer would pick up women.  Several men did stop at my bus stop and ask me if I wanted a ride.  Some would just stop and open the passenger door with the expectation that I would wordlessly get in their car, which perplexed me.  They looked sheepish and drove off when I just stood and stared at them in my turn.  I just didn’t realize until years later that merely being a working class girl standing alongside a highway made me look like I would be available to sexually service any man with a few bills in his wallet.  It really astounded me when I figured this out.

I avoided most of the trial and media about this killer, as it was too close to home.  He had attended our high school at the same time as my oldest sister. To my many middle class acquaintances, I try to explain some of my childhood by pointing out that this mass murderer didn’t stand out.  He was one angry, predatory male among many.  I know many boys who ended up dead, on drugs, in jail, in the military, or the few lucky ones working for the military industrial complex in a union job.  Not all the boys at my school turned out poorly, of course, yet I find that those who turned out well seem to have incredible strength of character.

What I remember most of the mass murder media coverage was when some of the family members of the dead were able to testify directly to the killer as part of his sentencing hearing.  I was interpreting at a birth and the family had this on the television, which was so bizarre to me.  But I am glad I saw it, because I remember it to this day.  One after another, they told the killer how much they hated him.  How they were so happy he was in jail where he would get his own back.  How they looked forward to his rotting in hell.  How nothing terrible that ever happened to him would be bad enough.  That they were glad in his suffering.  The cameras swung from his face to the victims’ families and back.  He did not react visibly to any of this directed hatred.  Not a tear, not a grimace, not any change of countenance.  Nothing seemed to touch him.

Near the end, a dead girl’s father stood up and said he took responsibility for not being a better father.  That he had left his young daughter to be raised in poverty by her young mother.  That he had not been there to guide and support her.  That when he had found out his daughter was getting into trouble and even running away, he didn’t act to try and help her, as a good father would have done.  He had not been there for his daughter, and now he would never have the chance.

“I cannot forgive you for what you did to her,” he said to the killer.  “Only she could do that, and she is not here.  If there was something you could do to bring my daughter back, I would ask you to, I would do anything – but I know you can’t.  Nobody can.  I only wanted to testify so I could tell you that I do forgive you for the suffering you have caused me as a father.  I don’t hate you.  I don’t wish you ill.  That is too much for me to carry.  So I forgive you.”

The killer first blinked, then tears poured down his face, then he started sobbing and choking.  Hatred, rage, anger, judgment, disdain, disparagement, revenge – none of these feelings could touch him.  He was all too familiar with them, and he had hardened his heart to all of them.  It was compassion alone that could touch him.

I have no illusions that he was crying in remorse for having killed that man’s daughter.  But the fact that he could cry at all did touch me.  And I like to think it may have added a tiny measure of comfort to those who were grieving, to see him showing some feeling.  But I don’t have the authority to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t presume to.  I only know it comforted me in that moment.

What about forgiveness?  I once heard an old story repeated as it surely has been in various guises.  A group of young monks who had made pledges both of silence and to never touch a woman were at the crossing of a river, where it was just deep and fast enough to make crossing on foot a danger.  But the five monks were able to hold hands and keep each other afloat.  In the middle of the river, one of the monks broke away.  The others watched in shock as he swam downriver to help a young woman carrying a baby.  He actually lifted her up into his arms with her baby and carried her the rest of the way across and then set her down on the shore.  When she thanked him, he simply nodded without speaking and moved back to his group.

The monks had to walk for several days to reach the next monastery.  During that time, they were wordlessly resentful.  The monk should not have picked up that woman!  He shouldn’t have touched her at all!  What he did went against their holy vows, and he was wrong!  Really wrong.  He considered himself holy, but he was not.   They knew each other so well that all this was communicated wordlessly.  Once they reached the next monastery, one of them felt he spoke for all when he approached the head monk and told of this incident.  A small trial was held and the accusation was made.  When asked for his defense, the offending monk made two points.  One, the woman was in distress and she and her baby could have drowned.  “Secondly, I only carried her for five minutes.  I put her down at the edge of the river four days ago.  It is the other monks, my brothers, who have been carrying her ever since.”  And so he was forgiven.

I consider forgiveness the most difficult of all the gifts we can give ourselves.  Because in forgiving it seems like we are somehow condoning bad behavior or harm.  Perpetrators and sinners do not deserve to be forgiven.  If you do something terrible you should not do it with the expectation of being forgiven.  And neither should I.   It would only raise the temptation for me to know ahead of time that I will be forgiven.  On the other hand, the victims of crimes and their loved ones do not deserve to be burdened by carrying around the hatred, the rage, and the intrusive memories of the injury done.  So what can we do?

Perhaps we can start by realizing that failing to forgive is more an injury to ourselves than to anyone else, especially someone we are not even in contact with.  Someone would have to care deeply about us indeed before our internal sufferings would cause them a moment’s remorse.  How often is that the case, especially for a crime victim?  One of the many great quotes falsely attributed to Buddha is the one about how not forgiving someone is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. This is especially true if you are not eating your meals together with the perpetrator.  Why poison ourselves?

One answer is that there is a fundamental unfairness inherent in the very concept of forgiveness.  In crimes and other transgressions, one person gets to be the perpetrator.  They choose to act, and they do something they want to do.  The other has to be the victim.  They don’t get to choose what is done to them or against them.  The action is done, and cannot be undone.   Both parties may be changed forever by this action.  And yet it is the injured party alone who has the additional task and burden of figuring out how to forgive.  Or carrying that pain and hatred around with them for the rest of their lives.  As necessary as it is, as healing as it can be, it is still a bitter cure to swallow.


In sentencing hearings, defense attorneys often speak to the judge about the circumstances of the defendant’s childhood, neighborhood, and social background, using the term “social capital” as in the defendant didn’t have much of it, so his possibilities were circumscribed.  Almost as if he were condemned by fate to end up in the criminal justice system and therefore should not be judged harshly.  I don’t like to think of our upbringing as a life sentence, but I also know that we cannot escape it entirely by pure force of will.  Moral fortitude alone is not sufficient.  It truly takes the social capital of a village to raise a child.

What is social capital?  To me, it is defined by what you have and know, and who you know.  Followed by what they have and know, and who they in turn know.  And how willing they all are to help you, in an ever-widening social circle.  If you have people in your life who know how to help you but simply refuse to, or who want to help but don’t know how, you are not going to get very far. It is like going to a dear friend for loan, when she is as broke as you are, then approaching a wealthy bank, which turns you down.  You still end up with nothing.  You need people who are able and willing to share their knowledge and resources with you.

A more thorough and elegant definition than mine was written a century ago in 1916 in an article by Hanifan: “Goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit …  and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.”

I like this concept that helping each other helps the whole community.  This is all cheerful great stuff, but for those who were not born into this kind of a social safety net and ladder, the required sympathy and fellowship are hard to come by. And we as a society pay the consequences, but not in equal measure.  Not by a long shot.

I remember one of our young friends expressing that he could afford to donate a substantial amount of his income because he doesn’t ever expect to be homeless or hungry.  So there was little risk and great benefit to his donating.  I shared that with one of my friends, who was silent for a moment and then asked if I felt the same.  I do.  I can think of many people who would take me in for months or even years at a time, as I would for them.  And have, on several occasions.  There are a great many beds and sofas between me and sleeping outside.  And a great many more kitchens between me and actual hunger.  The resulting feeling of security alone is one of the most priceless gifts of my social capital.

In court, I encounter many people and observe many cases where people literally have nowhere to go – no functioning friend or relative who has stable housing where they can stay.  I cannot truly imagine what that would feel like.  I cannot stretch my mind beyond sympathy for their situation, and an ongoing reminder to myself that I cannot know the sufferings of a person so differently placed.  What a wealth of friends and family I was born into.  A true blessing of fate.

Think about people we judge so harshly because they parent terribly or engage in domestic violence.  Did they have wonderful stable parents who demonstrated how to go about this mysterious business of being married and raising a family?  What kind of examples, what kind of support did they have to learn from?  Beyond emotional stability, what about the economics of a stable life?  How many kids decide to go to college and actually graduate, if they don’t have any family members or friends who are educated?  It is a leap in the dark.  How do we suppose people are to get healthy relationships and good jobs if they have never seen it done?  There is an almost infinite number of simple steps to get a good job, or to build a lasting and healthy relationship.

Someone has to guide each one of us, one way or another, through each of these steps before we can walk that path.  It takes countless mentors, supporters and teachers.  And even with all of that, we are quite capable of failing miserably at it.  It seems incredible that anyone at all is functional.  It reminds me of a lovely cartoon by the late Callahan – a huge stadium filled with banners welcoming members if I remember correctly to the “National Convention for Children of Functional Families” and there were just two or three people in the whole huge stadium.  We all of have our shortcomings, and so much of our successes come from a whole series of helping hands.  I try to keep that in mind when I find myself judging someone for falling short of my expectations.



A local judge recently considered a motion to end court ordering of a domestic violence treatment called the Duluth Model. This was based on research that it does not appear to decrease recidivism, but may actually slightly increase it. The motion was granted, ending the use of this treatment in our court. Unfortunately, the Duluth Model happens to be the only State-approved program allowed for domestic violence prevention, so the ruling leaves a dangerous gap.

For those who are unfamiliar, criminal sentences must have a legitimate purpose in order to be constitutional.  According to the well-written brief that was shared with me on this topic, there are basically two constitutionally allowed purposes.  One, to make restitution to the victim.  The other, to avoid repeat offenses, i.e. protect society from further harm.  The sentence must also be reasonable, and not needlessly harsh.  Punishment per se, in the biblical sense, an eye for an eye type of thing, is not on the menu for the criminal justice system under the US constitution.  Sorry, folks.

Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, conditions of sentencing must be reasonably related to the defendant’s duty to make reparations, or prevent future criminal behavior.  The purpose of this is to promote respect for the law by imposing punishment that is just.  It also should allow the offender a chance to improve himself.  It would reduce the risk of re-offending while making frugal use of public resources.  This is likely why so many of the programs are now set up for the offenders to pay for their own rehabilitation.

The favored model for domestic violence treatment has been a program called the Duluth Model, which was founded in that city and expanded across the country.  At its core, it comes from a feminist perspective and is based on the theory that (mostly) men beat (mostly) women because these men have been socialized to believe they deserve to have power and control over women.  The Duluth publications do not use gender-neutral words as they want to be clear that men trying to control women is the fundamental cause of most domestic violence.  They consider domestic violence to be a symptom of patriarchal ideology.

To quote their website,  the Duluth Model “believes that battering is a pattern of actions used to intentionally control or dominate an intimate partner, and actively works to change societal conditions that support men’s use of tactics of power and control over women”.  Their idea is to promote an egalitarian relationship between the genders.  They seek to hold participants accountable for changing their own patterns of thinking and beliefs, leading to new and healthier patterns of behavior.  They also strive to end victim blaming.

The Duluth Model includes the use of a “Power and Control Wheel” and an “Equality Wheel” that helps abusers recognize both the behavior patterns they seek to end and the patterns they are being trained to embrace. They have regular homework assignments calling for self-reflection and the taking of responsibility, in which they reflect on past behaviors and envision alternate ways to have acted under similar circumstances.  Like sexual abusers, they are tasked with writing letters of empathy and responsibility, in which they begin to perceive and acknowledge how it must have felt to be abused, and their own role in the abuse.  They even keep a log of their ongoing controlling behaviors, as a way to monitor themselves.

It appears to me that the studies indiscriminately include anyone anywhere who uses the word Duluth.  These random programs tend not to have the community component and are given in isolation. They also do not have the coordinated follow-up and immediate consequences of the true Duluth Model.  The results of these wannabe programs are not good. One study claimed that longer treatment seemed to “cause” a slightly higher incidence of repeat offenses.  The conclusion drawn is that the treatment itself must be counterproductive.

I am not convinced that any of the studies presented are statistically valid, or that the programs being studied as if they were one are even similar to each other.  The studies also don’t deal with who gets sent to the longer program.  It seems logical that the worst offenders go to the lengthier treatment, so the fact that they reoffend more than a group getting less treatment is not in itself a convincing argument against treatment.  But the studies have been well-received enough to have many courts stop ordering domestic violence treatment.  Now my local court is one of them.

I understand the aspect of justice not being served by having forced expensive treatments that are not effective.  That does smack of unconstitutional punishment.  I just hope that the courts will find a way to develop and order appropriate services so we can have a better chance of reducing recidivism.  Because if we lose the educational component, the prevention programs, the outreach and support, we are left only with the punishment, and more re-offending.

I was talking with a defense attorney about domestic violence, and she told me that she personally is glad that the Duluth Model is not going to be ordered.  She does not buy into the idea that domestic violence is about “power and control” but claims it is simply the effect of two people living in a toxic relationship. That made me wonder about the actual numbers – I had always understood that many more women are seriously assaulted and killed at home than men.  Has it changed to 50/50 in our modern world?  So I did a bit of research on US statistics.

It appears that for murdered adults, around a third of women are murdered by their male “loved one” while under 3% of murdered men are killed by a female intimate partner.  If these relationships are not about power and control, and have nothing to due with traditional men wanting to get women to submit, it must be a statistical anomaly that makes these mutually toxic relationships ten times more fatal to women than men.  And these statistics, to me, speak a lot louder than the critiques of the Duluth Model.

Call it whatever you want, but let us please get some kind of treatment plan in place to protect the one third of women and 3% of men who are murdered by the person who swore to love them.  We have the resources and the knowledge to make this happen.  And to quote a very old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I think we all agree that jailing perpetrators after the fact is not nearly as handy as preventing crime in the first place.



We read in the press about numerous human rights violations around the world. The term has become so common that it is hard to see the faces behind the numbers. A few days ago, I observed a portion of a hearing related to one of Colombia’s war crimes trials. I was listening mainly for the legal argument, and to hear the judge’s reasoning. Then a member of the press approached me, and asked me if I was one of the victims of Colonel Avila and his Death Squad Battalion. At that point, I looked around the courtroom and it struck me that in addition to the press, the room was filled with people whose lives had been permanently altered by the actions of Colonel Avila and his soldiers. Some were crying. Some were talking quietly with one another. A few were shaking their heads in disbelief.

The judge was tasked with deciding whether this already jailed Colonel should be further charged with seventeen more crimes, including murders, and if so, whether he should be ordered held on these additional cases. His reasoning followed the law, but when stated aloud, it also seemed crazy-making, because war is crazy. From what I was able to observe, the argument went along these lines:

Armed conflict is legal. Killing people during armed conflict is legal. So when a soldier kills someone during armed conflict, it is not murder. It is legal killing. When we hire and train soldiers, we expect them and even order them to kill people. The soldiers are just doing their job. And this is all within the law. This is not a crime. It is a legitimate, legal function of government – to kill people. The government has a legitimate interest – in killing people for political purposes.

In the specific cases at hand, there is no dispute over whether the victims were killed. There is no question that they were killed by soldiers. The first question is whether they were killed in battle, or just murdered. If they were killed in battle, it is NOT murder. If they were set up to be killed, but not really killed in battle, then it IS murder. In these cases, it does appear that these individuals were set up to be killed, and not actually killed in battle. This fact is no longer in dispute. So it IS murder.

However, the judge went on, the prosecution did not make the necessary connection in each of these cases between what happened (civilian non-combatants being set up and killed by soldiers) and their superior officer Colonel Avila having knowledge of it. Some of his soldiers are in jail and some of them have even confessed to setting up civilians to get killed, but that doesn’t mean that Colonel Avila knew what the soldiers under his command were doing. Maybe he was careless, the judge mused, and should have known, but there does not appear to be proof positive that he KNEW what his soldiers were doing.

It was at this point that several family members of the dead got up and walked out. For them, it was clear that Colonel Avila not only knew, but had directly ordered his men to do exactly what they did. Who would have dared to come up with such a plot and carry it out without the permission of his superior officers? But what exactly did these soldiers do?

Imagine that you are in a civil war fighting communists and drug gangs. Some people I talked with claim that the two groups became one group over time. As the government, getting money to fight crime, you need to show that you are winning in order to keep getting your funding. There is incredible pressure on you to show that the government is stable and in control. As soldiers, if you show that you are winning battles, you also have the chance to get promotions and move up in the military. So you fight hard and win battles, and save the country from destruction, and become a friend of the poor, who come to trust you, and you get richly rewarded, right? That is what the press indicates – I invite you to look it up on line. There is an uplifting article from 2011 showing Avila playing with poor children, “winning the hearts of the poor,” and it mentions that he has received 32 awards from all over the world for his amazing work in saving Colombia. A true humanitarian.

Sounds wonderful to have this sweet and charismatic man, a soldier trained in the United States, working at great personal risk to keep his country safe from commies and druglords. What a brave man! Winning the hearts and souls of the poor kids in the ghettos. The poorest of the poor. The people whom politicians love to talk about helping when they run for office. You can see Avila in the press photographs, smiling and surrounded by poor children of all ages. He is a real hero! Thank God Colombia has people like him to clean up the country and make things right. Only one problem. It didn’t happen that way.

For years, soldiers in Avila’s battalion got money from a special fund to pay informants about the movement of the enemy combatants. They were then supposed to find those combatants, and engage them in battle, hopefully killing them in the way the judge described as legitimate kills. Instead, the soldiers used the money to recruit poor kids from the poorest areas. They told these kids they were going to get work with the military. They were going to be soldiers, or work in other capacities for the military, and get good pay, uniforms, three meals a day, and money for their families. In one place, they got 30 young men, almost everybody in that neighborhood. What a great deal for these families! Their sons taken care of, and help for their community. God has smiled on them.

These young men were taken to remote areas of “armed conflict”. They were put into the uniforms of the guerrilla. They were summarily killed and positioned to look like they had been fighting. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes they were dressed as guerrillas after they were murdered. The “combat” scenes were photographed and documented. Their bodies were turned in as if they had been “casualties” from the enemy lines. This particular battalion, under Avila’s command, won all kinds of awards. They were doing an amazing job of finding guerrillas and killing them. They must have won most of their battles with close to zero casualties. Avila must be a genius. A military brainiac. Give the man an award, promote his brave soldiers, and the government did.

The families of the dead complained for years unheard. How could they recruit my son with Down’s Syndrome? Why did no one ask parental permission for our under-age sons? Why was my left-handed son found with a gun in his right hand? My son’s body was returned to me as he was found, with cleanly ironed pants on, after supposedly fighting in the jungle for months. Where would he have gotten an iron? And there was not a speck of mud or dirt on the bottom of the boots. My son was found with size 12 combat boots on, and he wears shoe size 8. My son was found with his combat boots on the wrong feet. Our sons, several dozen of them, were recruited from our village last week for the Colombian military. How could they all have become enemies of the state, switched sides, and been killed, within a week? How come if they all died in battle, they were each shot in the back of the head once? This doesn’t make any sense.

I don’t know how these cases first came to light and became common knowledge. When I asked Colombians about it, they said, oh yes, the False Positives. These murders have been nicknamed with a benign term that sounds more like a bad pregnancy test than a particularly cruel government sponsored plan to “cleanse” neighborhoods and kill a generation of young men while meeting their quotas for war casualties. Meanwhile, governments around the world, even as your eyes absorb these words, get funding from their own taxpayers, or from outside governments, and have to show that they too are fighting and winning. The pressure is on, and it is relentless. The costs of war go far beyond what we who are not in power can ever know.
How many poor young men were led to their slaughter as part of this charade so Colombia could appear to be winning the war? We will never know. But the current count of documented and confirmed cases of young people killed in this way, as of last year, is between three and four thousand. The mind absolutely reels as it tries to begin to imagine how much of this kind of thing is going on around the world. The numbers become too high to keep in mind each face, each slender young corpse, of the victims. Every life has a story. And this particular crime is just a drop in the bucket of the overall cost of war to soldiers and civilians and societies. Human rights violations, especially war crimes, encompass so much more suffering than this one wave of killings, as overwhelming as it is.

But coming back simply to this one set of killings in which I observed the judge arguing his government-sponsored philosophy which is shared by so many, I cannot help but ponder this. Poor kids were recruited by one side. They were put into uniforms of the opposing side, and murdered in cold blood. If they had, in fact, been recruited by the other side, and put into those same uniforms, and gone into combat with little or no training, bad weapons, boots that didn’t fit, and about the same chances for survival, they then could have been killed in cold blood, and that would have been legal and perfectly legitimate. So we don’t really have an issue with our kids getting put into uniforms and then getting killed. We just don’t want it to happen outside the rules of how we think it is legitimate to kill people. Perhaps instead of trying to find cleaner ways to kill each other, we can begin to figure out how we can stop killing each other?


There is a fundamental tenet of US law that is summed up in the phrase “your rights end where mine begin”.  Of course it is simplistic, but that old phrase comes to mind when considering how to protect society from personal violence while not condemning people who have already been punished by their own childhoods and are now broken beyond repair.  I have more questions than answers, but I consider the questions important enough to ask.

Allow me to introduce you to a defendant from the perspective of his criminal history.  This is not a nice person.  He has multiple crimes mostly against women spanning over the whole course of his adult life.  He continues to offend and re-offend and the cases just pile up.  He has felony convictions and is monitored as a sex offender.  He also has multiple misdemeanor cases in various jurisdictions, because he has a habit of meeting, scaring, threatening, and hurting women.  This is his ongoing pattern.

Easy to hate him.  Easy to condemn him.  Lock him up and throw away the key, some would say.  Take him out and shoot him, say others.  Isn’t there a “three times you’re out” law that can take care of him? Just get rid of him!  He is scum.  He is a horrible, scary, man who has hurt many and will hurt many more if we don’t just – do something.

Speaking NOT as an interpreter, but as a woman, I am personally sick and tired of men who hurt women.  I am tired of all their pathetic excuses.  I don’t give a damn if they were not breastfed long enough, or if their first girlfriend broke their heart, or if they were raised without a healthy father figure.  I am sick and tired of women having to pay for that over and over again.  Women who never harmed the men who turn to violence.  Women who also grew up with violence, but who instead of becoming perpetrators, end up with unhealthy, unsafe boundaries and rather than hurting others are left unable to protect themselves, and remain the victims.  It is a sickening cycle from every angle.

At the same time, these defendants are still human beings, with painful histories leading them relentlessly to their present situation. I invite you to meet the defendant as a child who as of yet has done no wrong and is not responsible for anything.  The attorney accessed his childhood records as part of sentencing.  He was born to a drug-addicted mother.  She was not able to take care of him, but social services did not notice this in any effective way.  He was neglected.   He didn’t have regular meals, decent clothes to wear to school, or anything like normalcy.  He was beaten by one of mommy’s boyfriends to the point of brain injury.  One result is that he has zero impulse control.  Even during this court process, he has yelled at everyone and threatened everyone, including his lawyer.  He is an angry, confused, broken human being.  He never had a chance to develop in any meaningful way.  No one came anywhere near to meeting his most basic human needs.  And now most people just wish he was dead.

Everybody hates him.  Even his long-term partner, the mother of his children, his off-and-on girlfriend, hates him and is scared of him.  He has tried to kill her.  Who could love him?  His mother never did.  His father didn’t care if he lived or died.  His extended family was just part of the problem.  No one at school liked him.  No teacher ever took him under her wing.  This is not a feel-good movie plot with a happy ending.  No one saved him.  Instead, everyone found him highly unpleasant and unlovable, even as a child.  He had nowhere to go for help, and no one had pity on him.  Now he has pity on no one.  Not even on his own offspring.  Why should he?  Where would he have learned compassion?  Who ever cared for him?  He wants things to go his way and he is really pissed off, because they never will.

He cannot make sense of his life history, not only because it doesn’t make any sense, but also because his childhood has left him borderline “retarded” – a misnomer that makes it seem like if we give him enough time he will somehow catch up and become a healthy, functioning person in society.  He has a problem that time will not cure, and there are legions like him across the world, recreating their own personal hell by abusing one person after another.

How much can society expect of him and others like him?  Not much. He and all the others who were not protected, nurtured, loved and raised to be decent adults don’t have a lot to offer. They are living in the only way they know how.   Society turned its back on them over and over.  Now they are acting out in ways that hurt others.  And the cycle continues.

Nothing that happened to this or any defendant gives them the right to abuse someone else.  It helps us understand how it came about. That is all.

So the questions remains.  How are we to protect society from the people that society didn’t protect?

Punishment does not prevent crime.  We need some plan for prevention.  But what?  What kind of transformation would our society need, before his kind of childhood would not happen?  Where children, all of whom are born with an open, innocent heart, could keep the full range of what nature endowed them, and bloom into healthy, functioning adults.  People we would easily be able to love, just as we love babies.

It is too late for him.  He will not be made whole.  And each of his victims has also received a wound, has lost a part of herself, through his crimes.

I don’t have a clear answer, and if I did, I could not implement it.  But we each have to take some steps in the direction of healing, and creating a society where children can remain as pure and complete as they are born to be.  Because an injury to one is an injury to all, and childhoods like his just perpetuate themselves.



Were you ever cold enough to be tempted to steal a pair of socks?  I met someone who was, and many others in similar situations.  The way different stores deal with shoplifters varies wildly.  At my local grocery store, the manager simply has the person return the item and warns them that they are not allowed back into the store.  Only if they are caught again does he inform the police.  I was told he has very few repeat offenders, usually the chronically needy or people with mental health issues.

For some misdemeanor offenses such as property damage, shoplifting and even some car accidents, the criminal charge may be dropped through an alternative called a compromise of misdemeanor.  In effect, the person who causes the damage pays for it with money to the victim of the crime (the store, property owner or car owner).  The idea is that the victim has received satisfaction, so there is no societal need for further punishment.  The prosecutor monitors these cases and once all the money is paid, the charges are usually reduced to something minor, or even dropped.

This kind of idea is not unique to the United States.  In several countries a person accused of a crime can pay money instead of going to jail.  It may be a formal procedure.  You might be sentenced to  thirty days OR a thousand dollars, for example.  In other areas, the payment may be informal.  You pay someone off or make a donation to a fund and let’s forget this ever happened.  In any case, I have interpreted for many defendants who ask if they can “just pay” instead of being prosecuted.

This adds to the confusion when shoplifters of very low-cost items are told by the store guard that they can pay to be let off.  One of the major so-called charities in our area is well known in the court system for having a large private security force policing their stores of donated items.  They then catch shoplifters and have them sign a “civil agreement” to pay usually a few hundred dollars in “damages” to the store – while giving back the items they may have stolen, which are usually worth a couple dollars.

In the cases where I have interpreted, there is a very consistent story.  A poor person tries to shoplift an item.  The store security catches them and takes them to an office.  They have to give back the item.  They are photographed.  They have to show their identification.  They are told they cannot leave.  Then they are offered what sounds like a compromise of misdemeanor.

The guard explains to the shoplifter that if she agrees to pay a special fee to the store of several hundred dollars, the shoplifter and the store can sign an agreement, and that will “settle the case”.  The shoplifter will then call around to friends and family, desperate to stay out of jail and avoid possible deportation for having tried to steal a donated item worth a couple dollars.  Their loved ones show up over the next few hours and hand over cash.  End of story, and lesson learned?  Well, no.  Because in this particular charity, the security guard (or loss prevention officer) then calls the police and has the shoplifter arrested anyway.

No, I am not a fan of the Five Finger Discount and I don’t think that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in mine.  But I do think the punishment should be more commensurate with the crime.  I don’t know why this huge charity store chooses to deal with shoplifting by pressing the person to pay hundreds of dollars, photographing them, taking the items back, trespassing them (with a trespass order) having them cough up what for them and their loved ones is a small fortune, then calling the police on them after all.  In addition to all that, shoplifters are now ordered to go to a class that is intended to teach them about the impact of shoplifting on “our” community.

I was so surprised the first time I heard the story along the above lines.  I thought it was an anomaly until I had heard it a few dozen times.  Some days I would hear five or six stories about this same situation playing out in the same store on the calendar where I interpret for shoplifting.  It has been a while so I don’t know if the policy has changed.  I hope so.

One attorney was asking the client in the jail holding area why he had stolen the particular item that led to his arrest.  It was documented in the case file as a pair of wool socks for 99 cents.  There was a photo attached – a used pair of wool socks.

“So why did you steal them?” the attorney questioned.

“Well you see I am homeless – I sleep in the streets.  And my feet get wet and then I am so cold. I even got bronchitis.  The clinic doctor told me I need to stay warm or I will get pneumonia.  And I have to be able to work.  That’s why I’m here.  I can’t afford to be sick.  Then one of my buddies told me that wool socks, socks made of wool from sheep, stay warm even when they are wet.  That’s why I was hoping to get a pair of wool socks.  But I only had the dollar and it wasn’t enough for the tax and I guess I was tempted so I just put them in my backpack and then I got arrested and they took the socks back. ”

This particular young man was sometimes in a shelter and sometimes on the street. He had no family in the area and had illusions about how easy it would be to get work in this area without papers or language skills.  He described himself as a hard worker.  His friends had put together the 250 dollars that the charity demanded for what he thought was his release.  He was feeling bad that his friends would now have less money to send to their families – especially since it didn’t really help him.

The sock stealing worker kept saying he knew he had done wrong, and he wanted to tell the judge so.  And then explain about his wet feet, and the temptation, and that he knew he shouldn’t have done it, but he was still hoping for mercy.  He was hoping so much that the ultimate punishment for trying to get a pair of wool socks would not end up being jail and then deportation.  He still owed the coyote several thousand dollars for helping his cross the border, and he wasn’t sure what might happen if he got deported and couldn’t pay.  He seemed more bewildered than anything else.  He was trying to make sense of something that makes so very little sense to me.

I am not an economist and I do not claim that I can place a monetary value on everything that happens around me.  But as a human being, I just wonder how useful it is to arrest poor people for trying to get things like a donated pair of used socks and then hold up their friends and family for a couple hundred dollars.  Follow that by having the taxpayers pay a several thousands dollars in court costs on each case by the time you add up the cost of lawyers, judges, probation and the rest.

I doubt many of us donate our clothing expecting it to be used as a lure to extort money from the poor.  Could we possibly have more clothing banks where  folks with good clothes could donate more directly in service of the poor?  This may be possible through our food banks.  I plan to be more thoughtful about where I donate in future.

Some cases stay with you.  I never put on a pair of wool socks without thinking of that young, hopeful, bewildered man.  And the millions of others who are in similar circumstances.  I hope  for the sake of all of us, that we can reach a less brutalizing global economy within our lifetime.

PS: Quite a few readers contacted me to ask if the store chain in question is a for-profit.  No.  It is a charity.  Do your research.


“We are NOT against sex!  We ARE against abuse.  And abusing sex workers has got to stop.  That is why we give these classes, so you can really try to wrap your head around what you are participating in – a cycle of abuse.  Please listen.  We know what we’re talking about.  We are sex workers.”  A few members of the audience sit up in surprise and start to really look at the speaker.

One of my favorite yet painful things to interpret has been a John’s class.  It is an amazing educational program that came out of a sexworker union in California a few decades back and is now used as a model around the country.  It is unique in that it is taught by  current and former sex workers, so they obviously have some standing to tell the johns some home truths regarding sex for money, and break through some of the Hollywood myths.  When people outside the field try to bring up abusive sex practices, they are  dismissed as prudes who are not sex positive, but when the sex workers are talking, we as a society have to listen.  They know what their work is like.  And they deserve to be heard.

The class has some portions trying to raise self-awareness in the johns.  What makes you think you should have sexual access to these young women and men?  Do you realize it can be considered a form of economic rape?  Instead of a gun you hold needed money, and without that, you are not having sex.  If you claim it is a job, do you care about the working conditions at all?  What makes you feel like it is okay to hop atop someone without even giving the least little bit of a shit about how that person lives or what their life is like?  Even leaving aside the fact that you are married or have kids the age of the kids you pay for sex, and other attendant ethical issues.  What is wrong with you, what is the hole in your heart, the gap in your psyche that allows you to feel nothing  in the face of another person’s suffering? And to actually participate in their suffering with no feeling but a sense of excitement.  Seriously.  Take a look at that.  For your own good.

According the the police officer that presented at the last class I attended, 85% of local prostitutes are under 18 and almost 100% of teens have pimps.  Every class, men claim not to know that the person they have sex with is probably underage, and does not actually keep the money.  They claim they don’t know that young people are forced, coerced, bullied and threatened into the trade.  They have a discussion about it in small groups and once they loosen up, they tend to joke about how it would be great to just get paid to have sex.  That would be a dream job.  They have seen all the media portrayals and it looks like fun.  Easy money.

Then the police officer tells them some incidents from his personal experience investigating sex trafficking and pimping.  He talks about how little money the worker gets to keep for her own use, if any.  How many are raped repeatedly and forced to take drugs, locked up for weeks and have their families threatened, as inducements to agree to work.  Some are found and rescued and then there are the unknown who are never found.  He uses actual names and cases in the news.  He shows a series of photos of sex workers with scars, burn marks, tattoos, knife cuts and stitches, and other permanent marks courtesy of the pimps, either during working years or when the worker tried to escape.  He shows photos from a murder scene.

As he goes through the slides, the police asks the audience,  “imagine if this were your sister, your mother, your daughter, your wife, with her face cut up like that, with those burn marks,” and each time the men I interpret for shudder.  Not for the victims, but because they don’t like their families mentioned. It is such a common fighting word insult to say for example “your mother is a whore”  that it really hits them hard to hear.  They don’t want their womenfolk mentioned. The police officer points out that he wants the men to realize that these workers also have siblings and parents who love them, and often children they support. They are real people with real families.

The local public health department also comes in with photos of genitalia with various sexually transmitted diseases, and gives a quiz on who they think has what, which everyone routinely fails, as many diseases are not visible on women, nor on men in early stages.  Part of the plea bargain includes getting sexually transmitted disease testing, including HIV.  There is information about general sexual hygiene.  One doctor actually joked during his safe sex talk that “god gave you two hands,” as a reminder that the only way to absolutely avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sexual contact with another person, especially someone who by trade is in contact with so many others.  And he of course reminded them that many wives and pregnant women become HIV-positive through their husband’s unsafe practices, so they need to stop thinking of this practice as something they can sneak off and do with no consequences.

A psychologist who works with sex addicts gives information about the psychology of addiction, and how the compulsive behaviors that we routinely use to harm ourselves and others are all addictions.  It could be drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or anything else.  They are things we come back to again and again in order to mask our pain, our loneliness, our isolation, our fear, our impotence.  But none of the addictions will make those feelings go away, so we have to keep going back to the addiction to escape our feelings, to dissociate from ourselves, until we finally get brave enough to seek help and look at our underlying problems.  And only then do we have a chance to become whole.  “Even if nobody ever finds out what you are up to, bottom line, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

The facilitator comes forward between each presentation and tries to engage the johns in thoughtful discussion.  She also shows a film where different workers talk about their struggles to get out of the trade.  Some of them disparage the men they have serviced, and laugh about what losers they consider these needy, greedy, socially isolated men.  One says she has daydreamed at work about stabbing the john in the gut and just watching his intestines pour out of him.   One talks about wondering now that she is sober and off the streets what kind of a person would actually wake up a drugged out unkempt woman sleeping under cardboard and tell her he wants sex.  She showed the alley where she used to sleep and just shook her head.  The film tries to show a human face to their suffering.  I wonder how many of the johns can see it.

The retired sex worker who is running one of the classes talks a lot about the dangers to the johns in the hopes that if nothing else their own narcissism might induce them to care a little .  She told them she herself always carried a knife after the first time she got beat up and that most workers have signals for the pimp to come in and how sometimes the john will get beat up or robbed.  Nowadays they can also get filmed or recorded, or followed home.  This is not the fun stuff we see in the movies, she tells them.  Believe me, I have been there.  Please believe me.  I am not the only one at risk out there.

One sex worker told that she keeps her undies bundled up in her hand in a little ball, so that as frequently happens when the john finishes and suddenly pushes her out of the car and slams the door, she won’t lose so many pairs of underwear.  This is not the movies.

Some of the statistics shared by the human trafficking expert still haunt me .  It is hard to fathom the terror and isolation of young people transported across state lines, let alone the globe, and forced into sex work.  And then there are all the local kids who are somehow vulnerable to it.  Lots start out just as runaways and end up never being able to get home.  Some have no homes to go to.  They fall prey to the larger concerns where millions are made off the backs of the youth.  Kids as young as 12 and 13 are given fake ID and transported across state lines to work in Vegas or other areas.  It stops most of them from getting home and keeps them in the business as they also get into drugs and get caught in the life.  But the number that hit me the hardest was the average number of tricks a typical  pimped out sex worker is supposed to come up to in a day.  Most men guess around 3 or 4.  The actual average was 22 to 25 a day.

Defense attorneys routinely tell me that these stats cannot be true – the police just want to “cast everyone as a victim”.  All I can say is that would be wonderful if it were true.  I would love it if the photos I saw were not real.  I wish all the stories I hear of abuse could be made up, and all human trafficking were just people coming willingly for good safe jobs.  I would love it if the sex worker who was stabbed to death in my town last week by a man who claimed to love her had not suffered such a very common fate, since for sex workers the top three causes of death are murder, overdose, and suicide.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the gamut of sex work from pornography to strip clubs to sex on the street were really just fun and carefree, victimless crimes, like certain people want us to believe?  God, I would love for that to be true. That would make me much happier than the unanswerable questions that weigh like a stone upon my heart.


Get to the bus stop early, surprised to find the winter night is ended. Pink clouds fluff across the deep blue dawn. The January sky shimmers through the trees. There is even a hint of a promise of warmth later today. People at the bus stop talk about how reluctant they were to leave their warm, cozy beds and face the morning frost. The bus fills with quiet, gentle people on their daily commute. A couple passengers chat with the driver on their way in or out. Most of us doze off or look at our books or phones, while a few of the regulars have hushed conversations. As the bus rolls into town, we cross a bridge. One side is completely fogged in so we cannot even see the water, just a few taller buildings on the hill. The other side is clear and bright and every detail and color of the boats and the docks are visible to the naked eye. The water sparkles and glistens under the thinnest veil of mist. Under the bridge, the fog is rolling, but as we pass it from above, we cannot tell if we are heading toward more obscurity or more clarity. And yes, I mention this because it is true, and also because it is an allegory for a day in court.

I exit the bus and shuffle my way through airport-like security, complete with people taking their laptops out of the case and emptying pockets, removing shoes and being wanded, which sounds a lot more magical than it is. The line is a democratic combination of defendants, victims, witnesses, jurors, lawyers, and county employees. I wonder if the judges have their own entrance. After waiting with a crowd for a free elevator, I arrive at interpreter services and see five jobs on my schedule for the day. Four are omnibus hearings, which some courts might call readiness hearings. Basically the judge is asking both prosecutor and defense where they are at in trial preparation, whether any discovery is missing, if any witnesses are left to interview, what is still needed from any crime lab and more, trying to nudge them along toward either resolution or nailing down trial dates that will work with a complex set of scheduling issues.

To get to the omnibus hearings, I walk through long hallways and pass  a room full of wooden benches that resemble church pews, except that they are covered in scratches, initials, and other cryptic messages. One of the few words in actual pen and not just scratched in says LUST. One of the seven deadly sins. Most seem to be just initials, which makes me wonder about people’s need to be seen, to mark their passage, even on a bench for waiting defendants.

In accordance with this court, I do not call out the names of the defendants and introduce myself, telling them we will wait for their attorneys. I just walk past everyone and knock on the glass door that leads into a glassed-in room where the judge sits. The guard at the door scowls at me and I waive my interpreter badge. He nods me in, as the door is not locked. His presence and his facial expression, along with his gun, act as gatekeepers.

Inside what should be a hushed and ritualized courtroom, with the judge in a robe sitting above us all on the throne, and the lawyers and defendants standing respectfully at their wooden podiums, or sitting still and quiet behind if they are not presenting, talking meticulously one at a time like a pod of whales, there seems instead to be pandemonium. There are close to fifty people in a small space, almost all of them lawyers. They are milling around, and as soon as anyone stands up someone takes their seat. Each has a briefcase, some have purses, jackets, scarves, backpacks, and other items which they seem to put down and pick up and move around the courtroom as if to unheard waltz music, circulating. The nervous energy is palpable and some people are visibly sweating. I try not to be one of them. I sit on a bench against the wall with a fairly good view of the room and make sure my interpreter badge is visible, in hopes that the lawyers will find me.

Probably half the cases will go on the record (where defendant and attorneys will stand and speak before the judge) and the others are just read off by the judge as agreed continuances. I have to look around for any lawyers who might be looking for me, and also listen to everything the judge is saying, in case he mentions that one of my cases has been continued off the record. Because I alone of all the people involved in this particular court system must have a signature for each individual job, confirming start and end times, even if the job lasts five minutes, I am constantly worried about figuring out who is supposed to sign in the various situations. Chasing down signatures from other hurried multi-taskers. Constantly trying to prove that I was in five places at once, juggling handfuls of people in two languages, each of whom in their turn are juggling caseloads that stagger the imagination, while facing this one defendant or victim for whom this particular case is the scariest, most important item in their life at this pivotal moment. Although I spend a lot of my day running from place to place like a scared rabbit, I make it a point of honor to not be rushed once I am in the moment, interpreting. It also takes fierce concentration.

While I both wait and listen in the courtroom, and observe the people in and outside the court through the glass windows, there are at least ten conversations going on around me. Some of the guards are talking; pairs of lawyers are discussing cases; friends are talking about their weekends, their daycare, their hobbies. One guard seems to sit back lazily when the intercom phone from inside the jail holding rings, and a young lawyer teases him, “Ah, don’t you know how to answer a phone?” He grins and says with a sparkle in his eyes, “Why don’t you call me at home and find out?” Then they both laugh. Interpreters from the world’s most common languages are sitting on the same bench when they can find a place to sit, looking out for their cases. And every five minutes or so the judge calls out in a booming voice: QUIET DOWN! Everyone looks up and there is a momentary hush, then whispering begins, then a few conversations heat up, a few laughs are heard, then voices are raised, and about five minutes later, the judge repeats some version of: EVERYONE PLEASE QUIET DOWN! WE ARE ON THE RECORD!

Meanwhile, one at a time as ordered, the guards are bringing out in-custody defendants from a holding tank next door, carefully bringing each person into the room in cuffs, then removing the cuffs while the person stands with his lawyer for the hearing on the record. The guards have to keep full control of the situation in spite of all the noise, the milling people, and all of us wandering in and out of this unlocked room. They have a screen with switching videos displaying various parts of lockup, including the area the interpreters and lawyers enter to have short interviews before and after hearings. I overhear one guard tell another not to uncuff the next guy, as he has been “squirrelly” this morning. So this defendant is kept in cuffs while before the judge, while three guards stand very nearby. I don’t overhear what his crime is, and he looks to me more thoughtful and worried than dangerous. Good thing I am not the guard as I obviously cannot read him.

I feel the tension, the concentrated attention on the squirrelly subject, and wonder what it would be like to try and stay on high alert without over-reacting all the time. If I sat at that door like the entry guard I see, his back mostly toward us, and I knew an in-custody defendant was on the loose in the room, and would love to get out, and I felt a hand on my back, would I just presume a lawyer was patting me affectionately, or would I swing around and chop the arm away, gun drawn? I wonder why more of these kinds of reactions don’t take place in the court. People are attacked. A lawyer I know had her jaw broken by her client in open court. A clerk was grabbed and a pen was held to her throat with a threat to stab her. Rival gangs had a shooting that led to a murder right outside juvenile court.

I fear that if I suddenly thought a squirrelly person in the courtroom was coming at me, I might kick into a combination of ululating like a wild woman at a solstice gathering, and remembering my few fighting skills from college judo, more likely getting in the way of the guards and freaking out the judge than providing any help in the situation. I might even get shot at to shut me up, although I am in fact paid to make noise. Right now, I just try to sit still on the bench making myself small enough to be out of the way, while still large enough to be visible.  This kind of contorting is a routine part of my day.

It is inside this environment that my morning will be spent, hoping against hope to hear what everyone says, straining first of all to figure out who my lawyers are, and which of my defendants are in or out of custody, and who is going on the record, and how to balance the varying need of the different lawyers and defendants. I constantly have to guess on the best timing for going back with someone into jail to discuss paperwork, or going first out in the hall to a quiet corner, where another lawyer wants to discuss a sensitive matter, but where I will become harder to find. Because court interpreters are not only expected to stand before the judge and interpret on the record. We are also expected to be available for the attorney and client to meet and discuss the case before and after the hearing as needed.   The general idea seems to be that these meetings should be brief and businesslike, and that longer meetings should be scheduled outside of hearing times, either in jail or at the attorney’s office.

This is a wonderful idea, to just have interpreters at court mainly work on the record and then pop out for a brief moment to quickly consult before and after court. But the actual needs of the cases are not so predictable, and the schedules of attorneys and defendants, family members and victims, witnesses and others are likewise not so perfectly organized. It is very common that a simple five minute hall conversation can turn into a forty-five minute completely necessary conversation, one that may actually save the court money by leading to settlement, or enhance the possibility of justice, by revealing a key issue in a case that until now was never clarified. As interpreter, I try to just keep the attorneys informed of what other time constraints I have, and then be present in the moment, and let the conversation unfold. If I let myself think of everything else I have to do and how unlikely it is that I will be able to arrange it all, I will fall apart and not be able to interpret here and now. And there is never an opportunity to interpret at any other place and time than here and now, which is where we all carry out our activities.

One of my morning cases is in custody and I go back into the holding area with the attorney. She explains to him that we are going to be asking for a continuance, and asks me to sight translate the document that she will ask him to sign. She asks if he has any questions, and I get the feeling she means it as an innocuous way to close the conversation. Yes, he answers. I don’t really understand why I am detained. He starts to tell her a long story about how he was arrested and what the police said to him and how he didn’t leave after the incident which is proof of his innocence, and she interrupts him to say they will get to all that later when she visits him in jail, but just for today, she needs him to agree to continue the case one more time so she can finish up interviewing just a couple more witnesses. One of the officers has been on vacation, and another witness who was somebody’s therapist is on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy, so everything is just taking more time. Sign here. We will talk later.

It is hard not to think about how it would feel to count off the long hours and days then weeks in custody, waiting anxiously for each lawyer contact and upcoming hearing, rehearsing in your own mind the story of the incident and exactly how you want to explain things, only to be cut off time after time. Back to your cell and we’ll talk soon.   Back to your cell and each second dripping like rain against your windowpane, as you lie on your cot. What if you are convicted and this waiting is destined to go on for years and years? That doesn’t bear thinking about, but what else can you think about inside? So you just focus on your next hearing, your next meeting with the attorney, your next chance to finally explain it all and maybe have it go away. If people could just understand what happened. If things could go back to how they were. But they are not likely to. So you wait. This individual will wait another month in jail now. And the named victim, who is of course also waiting for this case to resolve, is going to get a call stating that the case is put off once again.

In the United States, all who stand accused have the right to be brought to trial “speedily”, which is inaccurate in English, and which in Spanish we equally wrongfully call “without delay”. There will be delays, especially in factually complex cases. And every time the defense asks for a continuance for further investigation and negotiation, the speedy trial date is moved into the nebulous future. Theoretically, if the government does not bring the accused to trial within 60 days if the accused is held on this case, or within 90 if he is out of custody, the government must drop the charges. Factually, it takes time to build a defense and it is more common than not to ask for multiple continuances and keep moving the end date.

Both sides in litigation have the right to know what the other side plans to present at trial. For example, opposing sides give each other a list of potential witnesses with their names, identifying information and the expected content of their proposed testimony. There are many other factors and reasons to keep putting off a trial. The most important one is that once all the witnesses have been interviewed and all the documents have been exchanged, the sides most often come to some kind of resolution of the case, negating the need for trial. I remember being shocked in law school when our criminal law professor asked us to guess how many criminal cases ended up as pleas – he claimed it was 99% at that time. Most sources still have it above 90%. So the whole concept of preparing for trial is a bit iffy.

I am still in the courtroom.  The in-custody case goes quickly on the record for the continuance, and another one is continued off the record, so I have two down and two to go for this morning. I get a text message asking if I can take a 1600 add-on for a jailhouse interview, and it seems like such a light day I agree to stay late. My afternoon is just one sentencing hearing, so it should be smooth sailing. One of the lawyers asks me to join him in the hall, as he has a new offer to make to his defendant before they go on the record. We find a spot that is for the most part quiet, except that people walk past us. One crying woman walks past us several times as we talk. The attorney is explaining that the prosecution has made an offer, and by law the defense attorney has to bring all offers to the defendant, because the accused, and not the lawyer, is the one who has to accept or reject each offer. The attorney’s job is only to convey it and advise him as to the risks and benefits of each course of action. You have some choice here, the attorney says in an encouraging voice.

This man works in a store and is accused of having inappropriately touched a young customer. The lawyer asks for some information about the facts of the case as they apparently have not had a chance to meet at length. The lawyers asks  about where exactly the store clerk put his hands, where the pockets were that he was supposedly searching for stolen candy, and who might have witnessed this. The charge is two counts of felony child molestation. They can go to trial, but to be honest, the lawyer tells him, most juries believe children against adults. Or he can plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense. A misdemeanor conviction would still mean he has to be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life, but it might avoid a deportation as he would not have to go to prison. He could get up to a year in jail on a misdemeanor, and he can try to get credit for time served, but the charge that will be filed if he chooses to set the case for trial will carry a maximum of several years in prison and once he sets it for trial the prosecutor is not going to drop the charges back down. Does he want to set it for trial, knowing the risks? Or does he want to plead to something he says he didn’t do, and be punished for it, and a registered sex offender the rest of his life? It’s up to him. There is some choice here.

The defendant just sits silent and staring and finally the attorney says gently, do you think we should include your wife in this conversation? Is it okay if she hears what we are talking about? The defendant agrees and the woman that has walked past us crying several times turns out to be the wife. As she joins us and the attorney tries to recap for her what he has told her husband, she starts sobbing aloud. I cannot understand, she interrupts him. I cannot understand at all! I met this man when I had just arrived in the US, alone and pregnant, and he took me in. He treated my daughter just like his own and he never disrespected her. Later on, we had children, and he never disrespected them. We have had other relatives stay with us through the years, including my young niece, and he never disrespected her. So how could it be true that he would touch a girl like that? How can it be true?

One of the very strange things about being an interpreter is that we never know what is true – we each have our hidden biases and our life experiences that lead us to find certain things more believable than others. But as a profession we are sworn to suspend those biases and do our utmost to impartially and neutrally convey whatever is being said, without deciding in that moment whether we believe it is truth or lie, but simply like a courier taking the package to the destination without opening it and examining the contents. The problem is that as linguists conveying meaning we of course have to get into the contents in order to deliver the message. I try to just get into the point of view of the speaker and relay it as it is said without any attempt in that moment to determine what they are thinking. If someone says “I didn’t do it”, I simply say “I didn’t do it”, using to the degree possible their tone of voice and their emphasis.

Over time, I have learned that I really don’t need to know what is true in order to be able to convey these messages into the target language. But as a human being, we make constant and vital, life-changing decisions on who we believe and who we will trust, and what we think is right. To suspend belief is strange and counter to what we try to do in our usual lives, which is to make sense of the world around us and decide what we think and how we choose to act in the fact of these conclusions. So at times it can feel unsafe to go on like this, with the nagging gut question: shouldn’t we know what is really going on here? Adding to the trauma is that we as interpreters are not allowed to act or even speak on our own behalf, except in the most limited and circumscribed ways. We may become curious about missing information or wonder about the outcome of a case, but we are not allowed to ask. So we get all these jagged, incomplete snapshots that can stay with us for years, ongoing questions that will never be answered outside of our imaginations.

The lawyer starts to explain the case further but the defendant’s wife interrupts him again – I have another question. I stay at home with a disabled teen. He is the only one who works and pays for our household. What am I supposed to do if he goes to jail? What am I supposed to do if he gets deported? He is a good man, a decent man; I have lived with him and seen him every day for over 20 years. I know his heart. He have never hurt a fly. He is just here to work. He doesn’t even drink! He gives me his whole paycheck, and I buy everything. I even buy his clothes. I get to decide how to use the money. I pay all our bills. But with his money, the money he earns. What am I and my  child supposed to do? What is to become of us? How can this be happening? I don’t understand!

The lawyer nods with concern and tries to reassure her by saying that nothing is being decided today. Your husband is out on bail so he can keep working for now. We don’t know how the case is going to go, so there is no use in guessing outcome. What you can do for now is try to find character witnesses, such as customers from the store, church members and others who might be able to testify on his behalf. But what about the video from the store, she asks him hopefully. That will prove, that will prove exactly that he was trying to just protect the store and catch a shoplifter. I know it will! Did you get it? Have you watched it? Unfortunately, the lawyer replies, as I was telling your husband, the store erased the video tape from the incident before we could formally ask for it. They told us that they tape over the same tape every week to save money. So there is no tape of the incident. I’m sorry.

Many of the cases we deal with are nebulous like this. It would be horrible to be a decent hard-working person accused of a terrible crime and branded for life as a pervert, subject to hate crimes and having trouble finding housing, if you hadn’t done anything but simply tried to stop a repeat shoplifter from stealing again. What if he really just tried to grab the gum or candy bar from her jacket pocket?

It would be beyond horrible to be a kid who had been in the same store for several years, and just being the last of the siblings out the door, is suddenly grabbed and mauled by the store clerk whom everyone likes and who has always seemed friendly and nice. How terrifying, and then to be accused of shoplifting when you are brave enough to tell the adults about it. To have to face the police and be interviewed by the defense attorney, asked over and over, are you SURE you didn’t make this up? Maybe you are just a little thief and a liar. And the same perpetrator could have countless victims with all variations of seriousness in offenses, all afraid to come forward. There is no good outcome for these cases. We can never be sure of the truth. And the more we think about it in that moment, the worse we will interpret.  It can create incredible tension.

The fourth case of the morning is a defendant accused of domestic violence assault. He is angry at his wife for calling the police. He is angry at the system for arresting him when he didn’t do anything. He is angry at missing work to come to these stupid hearings. He needs to work. It was stupid, idiotic, of his wife to call the cops on him – what if he gets deported or just leaves the country? That what he is thinking of doing, and it would serve her right! He might just screw it and take off and then she could figure out how to support three kids without a job – she has never worked – and find out that although she thinks his life is so easy, hey! It’s not. She’ll be sorry. She’ll be sorry she called the cops on him.  She was so stupid to do that!

Anyway no, no, don’t worry, of course he’s not really going to take off while he is out on bail. He was just saying it is tempting to show her. Teach her a lesson. No, he is going to stick around and go to trial because he knows he’s gonna win. Because she’s not gonna show up. No! He hasn’t had any contact with her, he knows there’s no-contact order, he’s just saying that he knows she isn’t gonna show up and there isn’t any case and he didn’t do anything wrong and he needs to get to work so can we just kinda get’er done? Let’s just have this hearing now. Let’s just set this case for trial and then he can win it and see what he does about paying his wife back for her betrayal. He’s not threatening her – but she WILL be sorry. Because he is going to win and then she is going to want him to keep working for her but why should he? She should suffer! Because she made him suffer! Haha! Good luck to her, trying to raise the damn kids without his help. She will wish she had never seen a phone in her life.  Calling the cops like a dipshit.  So stupid!  There is no case at all.

The lawyer tells him, listen. I don’t feel that you are truly understanding what the risks and benefits of each course of action are. It is fine if you want to take your case to trial. I am happy to represent you at trial and defend you to the utmost. You are right that your wife may not show up for trial, and it would be more difficult for the prosecution to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. But they have the 911 tapes. They have the responding officers. They may have other witnesses. And in my experience, your wife may still show up, because that can happen. The victim’s advocate might encourage her to come at the last minute. And she can be court-ordered to appear, and face jail if she refuses. So I can take you to trial, but I am not comfortable having you set for trial today when I hear you say you “know” you are going to win – I don’t know that and you don’t know that. I need you to be clear that there is a calculated risk and if you go to trial and lose, I don’t want you to come back and say my lawyer agreed that I was sure to win. There are no guarantees at trial. I cannot predict the outcome and neither can you. So you can go to trial, but I need to hear you say that you know and acknowledge the risk there.

They argue back and forth for a while until finally the attorney tells him I cannot let you set for trial today because that is going to take the offer off the table and I am simply not convinced that you are fully informed. We have not had time to sit down and talk about it – I have to represent to the court that you know what you are doing and it doesn’t seem to be that you do. I don’t think you have fully considered their offer. I know you want this to be over, but the outcome is going to affect you for years to come, maybe the rest of your life, and it is worth some time and attention. Again, I am happy to take you to trial…

After ten or fifteen minutes of repetition and argument, with a lot of side comments from the defendant talking about how made he is still so mad at his wife for putting him in this position and how she is going to be sorry for it, especially if he goes to jail and then gets deported, because she really needs him, they agree to a one-week continuance and plan to meet in the interim at the attorney’s office.

It seems like I have been interpreting and chasing signatures for at least six hours, but all of this has taken just a little over two hours. I sit on a bench to put my paperwork away and think about the blessed rest am I now going to have back in the office, my first break of the day, but at the very moment I start to slide my job sheet into my calendar, another interpreter runs up to me. She is on her way out of the building and the office asked her to run by and tell me to go immediately to PO. To me, this means a Protection Order hearing, in the Ex Parte Department, which has two very busy courtrooms with benches in each and another shared waiting area between them, along with some very upset people milling in the hall. I tell her that I need to go to the office and get the information so I at least know the name and case number of the client. But she tells me she is sure they just want me to go there and figure it out, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent her to tell me where to go. They didn’t give her any information except the room to go to.  They are swamped.

Argh. I start to explain to her why this is wrong but by then we are in the elevator and it occurs to me this is not her problem, so I just have her show me where she thinks I am supposed to go, and she leads me into a little side-office with a toy area and a scared-looking Spanish speaking woman with a little girl playing at her feet. This must be my petitioner, and she is going to meet with a domestic violence advocate who is going to help her fill out the paperwork. After that, this interpreter will take her to a second office to file it and get copies, then we will go to the courtrooms where I would have wasted my time looking for her, if my sweet colleague had not helped me to find her in the first place. Now that I have found her, I assiduously fill out a whole separate job sheet for our intensive documentation system, because this case is civil and I cannot include the billable time on the same job sheet as criminal cases. I have to rewrite my full name, full address, court certification and other information, and sign and date each jobsheet. I have to remember to fill in my address over and over at home, as I don’t like to just wander around holding out a sheet of paper with my full name and home address in and out of jail all day. I feel sure the county’s billing system was intended for contractors such as builders who might bill on a three-month remodel on a single sheet. It doesn’t make sense for people working in fractions of hours to have all this paperwork, but it is not our choice. Any more than it is our choice to be contractors rather than benefited employees.

As to paperwork, as it turns out, the petitioner already has a protection order, in which the child’s father is allowed unsupervised visits and even text contact, for the specific purpose of arranging visitation. She wants to ask for a change, because she found out he is working during his overnight visit so he doesn’t even see his daughter, but leaves her with a relative. Also he is using the text contact to harass her. For example, he was ordered to leave her items and papers for her to pick up with a police standby, but she was scared to ask for the police so she went with a friend instead. She went when she knew he would be at work. But almost none of her things were there. She could not find her clothes, her personal items, and even their passports and birth certificates were gone. She texted him to ask where everything is and he texted back: try your local junk shop. She texted, seriously, those are my papers and I really need them, and he texted back, try the city dump. Why should I save your shit when you left me? She showed many other texts where he told her he knows where she goes and who she is talking to and she’d better not let their daughter ever meet a certain guy or he will take her away for good, etc.

All the while the adults are talking the child is doing her utmost to be seen and heard. She colors on the paper she is given, but also on the desk. She opens her mother’s purse and takes things out. She takes off her boots and refused to put them both on, holding her foot gleefully with both hands and shrieking with excitement as her mother tried ineffectually to convince her that putting her boots back on is the right thing to do. She gets up with one boot on and one off, and wanders out of the room we are in, and then starts leaving the area, prompting a short chase with more gleeful laughter. It is the kind of laughter like a thin ice coating on an approaching meltdown that I often heard when I worked closely with domestic violence families. There is so much turmoil in the lives of the adults that the children must strain to be heard and attended to. And they cannot wait forever. They need to be seen and heard and comforted and safe and cared for. As interpreter, I am not supposed to engage with or talk to her at all. Even though in my heart of hearts, I am convinced that if I were allowed to take one of the crayons and draw a doggy wearing one of her boots on a sheet of paper and let her engage with it, I could keep her quiet enough that we could get through this much more easily.  I resist though.

The conversation drags on mostly because the petitioner is so unsure of herself and what she wants and can get. Almost every question that the advocate asks, like do you want to change the overnight since he is not with your daughter then, or do you want to remove the texting exception from the protection order, she answers with, I’m not sure, I don’t know, it’s hard to say, I don’t know what to say. The petitioner ends up saying maybe it is okay to have her daughter overnight with his family members, because she doesn’t want to be unfair. His sister is a good mother and she think the sister is the one watching the girl overnight. So she guesses that is okay. She also doesn’t feel right having him not text because that is how they arrange visits, so maybe that is okay too, but she would like to have her passport and birth certificates, even if he has thrown away all her clothes and shoes and other belongings. She doesn’t need much. But she would like her papers. And it would be nice if he could quit harassing her. But he has always been like that. Very threatening.

There is more back and forth and eventually a few minor modifications are written up and the advocate tells her to go with the interpreter to a second office where this can be filed and then take the original in front of the judge for signature. She explains that the judge will do one of two things. If she wants to, she can just sign it. Then you have to take it back and file it without leaving the building. But if the judge thinks the guy should have notice before ruling, she will order you to serve him and then you will have a hearing in two weeks or more. But now go to the second office to get the papers copied and stamped and ready to present to the judge.

The second office has two male clerks behind glass and the one we get has a nametag on that indicates he is in training. He begins immediately to speak Spanish to the petitioner and I do not know what this court’s policy is on staff using Spanish. After a few sentences he just switches to English and it becomes a non-issue. He tells her which copy to keep and which to hand to the judge and is kind but maybe a bit too friendly as he doesn’t send us on to court until 1140 and the cutoff for morning hearings is 1145.

We get to the court area with two courtrooms and I leave the mother and child in the middle waiting area fighting over the boots again, as I approach each bailiff in turn to see if either judge might be able to hear us before noon. I let them know this interpreter at least is booked for the afternoon calendar and I don’t know if they could get someone else – one of them says they will try to squeeze us in before noon and we should stand by. Then she comes out and tells me to tell the mother to get out of the area because her child is too noisy. I interpret this and they are sent into the hall outside and I myself stay in the court waiting area to avoid interacting with the mother and child. I kind of want to play with her.  But of course I don’t.

We wait in our separate places until noon, when the bailiff collects us and says sorry but you will have to come back at 1330. I let her know that this interpreter will not be able to come back as she has a sentencing hearing that will conflict, but she (yes I have to talk about myself in the third person) will let office staff know that another interpreter will be needed. I walk off quickly at the end so the mother won’t want to talk to me and when I get to the office the staff is locking the door for lunch. I tell her what happened and tell her that I cannot make it to the 1330 as I will be starting a sentencing hearing at 1300 but she tells me in fact my sentencing is at 1345 and on top of that she has added a 1300 walk-in and wants me to meet him right at the end of lunch and take him to a family law facilitator. So now it is 1210 and I need to get out and find food and then be back a few minutes before 1300 so I can find this guy and take him to the family law facilitator’s office. I doubt I will be able to get him through any kind of pro se (do-it-yourself without a lawyer) paperwork in the precious 45 minutes before the sentencing hearing, but I surely will try. Meanwhile the office staff, who is a temp, assures me she will do her best – on her own lunch break – to find another interpreter for the 1330 PO hearing.

Breathe. Breathe deeply. Easy to do when one is running a few blocks to find something to eat, knowing she must return early to get through court security and find the guy who needs help filling out his family law paperwork. Well, at least this time I have his name and case number. I grab a bite, literally, and find to my surprise that I have thirteen precious minutes free. I put my purse close enough to my side to notice if anyone tries to grab it (yes, working in court makes us paranoid) and then I close my eyes. I imagine a cord running from my tailbone to the center of the earth, grounding me and reminding me that I am alive, I am okay, I have the right to be here. Breathe. Run energy through your system. Envision a large magnetic rose in front of you, and imagine sweeping it through your body, pulling out any foreign energy, leaving only what is you, what serves your best and highest good, within you. There goes the child’s missing boot. The crying woman whose husband never disrespected her kin. The judge calling out like a cuckoo clock for us to quiet down. The guard who was making fun of two prisoners promising to exchange letters after one was released. The man who wanted his wife to suffer for reporting him. The new clerk who wanted to practice his Spanish. All the glaring people in all the offices who didn’t want me to try and jump the line, all the needs and wants and despairing anxiousness of the people who need the court system to try and fix what is broken. Picked up like metal filings and dropped along with the rose down my grounding cord, to be melted away and transformed into useful energy – maybe for someone missing a boot. Open eyes. Run to court. Get through security.

I find the 1300 add-on pro se client and take him to the Family Law Facilitator. The whole way he is asking me questions and my answer is always the same. Let us ask when we get there. We will ask when we get there. I can ask when we get there. Finally in the elevator at question number five I smile and say, sir, this interpreter cannot do anything with your questions except repeat them in English. So let’s please wait. He seems to find that food for thought and chews on it for the rest of the way. Sadly, we are not the only ones to want to get there early. Although the door is locked, there are perhaps 15 people on benches, standing or leaning, each with the eagle-eyed attention of a person who has been waiting where there is no strict line set-up for turn-taking.

When they open the door I attempt to slip in to tell the staff that I am an interpreter and have a 45-minute window so that if anyone is going to talk to him, they should consider this. But a large person grabs me by the shoulder and says she was there first and damned if she’s letting anybody in front of her. I explain politely but loudly that I am an interpreter and just want staff to know I am here and how long I have so they can know. Staff overhears and comes to me and after a few second of my interpreting decides that his kind of case cannot be served today anyway, as they are only dealing with divorce finalizations, and he wants to initiate a parenting plan. The hurried staff member with the long line tries to get him to take a packet of paperwork to file on his own and he tells her he got all that in the mail but there is no way he can make any sense of it and he really needs help.

All of this takes several minutes, while a long line of frustrated people watch and listen, switching their weight from leg to leg and crossing and uncrossing their arms. Luckily a second staff member emerges and starts helping the others in line. What should I do, the man asks bewildered. I have been waiting for hours, since this morning, because they said you could help me! The staff tells him that they have a Spanish-speaker who gets to work at 1400 and if he waits another hour, she will meet with him and tell him what he can do in more detail. So I am dismissed from the case and he settles in for another long wait. And as I wait for the elevator I realize I had told him we would ask all his questions when we arrived, but as it turns out, I wasn’t able to. Hopefully the next person can help him.

Back at the office, I let the staff know that I finished in record time and why, and that I am going to check my email and answer queries regarding jobs for the next few days and then go to my 1345 sentencing hearing. As self-employed contractors who often get hired for two-hour periods, we spend a lot of the day chasing jobs and answering emails to secure hours and patch together a workweek. But she smiles an apologetic smile and tells me that she is so sorry but nobody could come and take the 1330 so I will have to try and do it if not before, then after the sentencing hearing, but then it might run into the attorney client, so she isn’t sure how this is going to work, but anyway she did her best but it was last minute. Well, I tell her, nobody is at the Ex Parte department until 1330 so I have fifteen luxurious minutes. I might even use the bathroom! I walk into the little windowless cubbyhole that is the interpreter room.

Right then an anxious lawyer walks in and says he desperately needs a Spanish interpreter right this minute – just for a minute – he doesn’t know HOW one didn’t get ordered but they are ready to go on the record and it is an SRA, which the temporary staffworker tells him is yet another new acronym to her, to which he replies that he isn’t sure himself what it stands for come to think of it, and I pop out of my cubbyhole and suggest Sentencing Review, and he realizes he has a Spanish interpreter within reach, and he swears this will only take ten minutes. Hmm. If it really takes ten minutes I could rush from there to the PO hearing, where the bailiff promised to get us on first, and then still get to the sentencing hearing on time. The staff looks at me to say you don’t have to do this, but the lawyer is puppy-dogging me with his eyes and his client has missed the whole day work and he could get fired ….please.

I run with the attorney and meet with his client and he tells the bailiff the interpreter just has ten minutes and it is agreed that we can have our case called next. It turns out that the guy was sentenced to 20 days work crew but because he works six or seven days a week he has not been able to complete his days by the date ordered. He was upfront and told this to work crew as the date approached, and they told him they need a letter from his boss to show he is not lying. He got a letter from his boss and handed it in, but work crew didn’t think it was good enough. So they wrote a note complaining to probation and probation wrote to this court and the case got set up for this review hearing.

Luckily, the attorney was able to find out what exactly was needed in the letter and he was able to get a new and improved letter from the employer and he hands it in after duly showing it to the prosecutor.  It fulfills all the requirements set forth by work crew and your honor I really do feel this was just an unfortunate miscommunication and since this man works every day and cannot afford to lose his job – so many mouths to feed – could your honor consider just this once in this very particular case converting the work crew to electronic home monitoring, thus effectively carrying out an appropriate sentence, with both inconvenience and cost to the defendant, while allowing him to keep his job. It would be an ironic outcome, your honor, if at the end of the day, my client loses a job where he works steadily 6 or 7 days a week, because he was unable to perform more work, as a punishment for having attempted to steal something to eat back when he was unable to get work.

Well, he tried to steal something to eat and he didn’t manage that, and then he tried to work on work crew to pay for it and he didn’t manage that. I hope he does better on electronic home monitoring, the judge admonishes. It is now 1323 and as I ask this lawyer to sign me out, he asks me to just very quickly sight translate the two-page document related to electronic home monitoring for signature. I go through and read it all into Spanish. It takes the five minutes I have left.

“You understand this is like jail,” the attorney tells him as he signs. “You will go to work and then just come straight home from work.”

“Yeah,” the defendant tells him with a rueful smile. “That will be no problem.  I already do. I work six or seven days a week mostly 12-hour days.”

He will be meeting with someone at the Electronic Home Monitoring program office and the attorney promises to walk him there and assist him in getting an appointment at another date where they can order a Spanish interpreter to assist.

I run to Ex Parte to find the 1330 – the bailiff see me and tells me come on in, you will be the first case. But the mother and child are nowhere to be seen. I start to text the office to tell them that I will go to the sentencing hearing but the PO was not covered as the petitioner is not here, and then she walks in just as I am leaving. I tell her I have to leave her and they could not find another interpreter, I am sorry. She just sits down, a disheartened person who has been told to sit down enough times that she sits down now without being told. I tell bailiff and petitioner that they should re-contact the office and see if someone can come, if not they may need to reschedule. Mother says she is on the bus and it is really hard to get in and she is worried about losing her job. Her boss gets really mad when she takes a day off. The kind bailiff tells me just come in right now and let’s get on the record. It won’t take that long. This interpreter is getting a sinking feeling and a bit of a stomach ache.  The sentencing hearing is looming.

The judge looks over the paperwork. Did you inform your husband that you were going to present this modification request to the court today? No? Look here, and here, you see there are signature lines for petitioner – that is you, and for respondent – that is him. You have two choices. If you can get him to sign these two lines, then you can bring these papers back to me for my signature, and your protection order will be modified by agreement. If you cannot get him to sign, then you have to have him served with these papers but you also have to tell him when and where and what time to meet you so he can also be at this hearing and he also can say whether he wants this modification and why.   “I think he will sign this,” the petitioner says, and she takes back all the papers and is directed to go back to the second office we were at to get copies for service. This interpreter tells her she must run to another hearing, but as the new staff spoke some Spanish, hopefully he can understand enough to make her copies for service.

I get into the sentencing courtroom just as the guard is bringing in what looks like a Spanish speaking man in handcuffs. I ask the guard at a free moment if his name is the name I have on my list, and she says no, this guy doesn’t use an interpreter. She directs me to sit in the back row, out of the way, as there are many witnesses who want to talk at this robbery and stabbing sentencing. I weasel my way around the room, skirting the walls, until I get close enough to the bailiff to whisper. I ask how long he thinks it will be before my case comes up and he says at least fifteen. I tell him I left someone alone at the protection order office and would it be okay for me to try and finish that. He says that is fine.

I sneak back around and get to the other office, just as one of the clerks is grabbing the papers from the woman I was helping. She looks very unhappy but is unable to be forceful enough to make herself heard or even to hold on to the papers as she clearly desires. “Go, go!” the Spanish-speaking new staff encourages the fleeing paperholder. “It’s okay, he tells me with a smile. “The judge just forgot to sign the papers so my coworker is going back in to get her signature!”

I have to consider the situation very quickly from the practical standpoint. If I just slowly start to interpret for the lady who is clearly stunned, silent and overwhelmed, by the time the new staff member could possibly coax the petitioner into explaining what she understands has happened, the clerk is going to be in front of the judge asking her to sign something she just refused to sign. To avoid this, the interpreter while carefully not advocating for the petitioner or suggesting any outcome, asks the petitioner for her permission to summarize what the judge said in court for the benefit of this office , and states that in English to the new clerk. He looks shocked and jumps up and runs down the hall after the other clerk, catching him before he asks the judge to sign.

When they both get back with her paperwork, I settle down into just interpreting for the three of them at their own leisurely pace as the little girl alternately runs out of the room, throws a ping pong ball she found on the floor at various patrons, crawls under occupied chairs, and takes off her everloving boots. At the end of the petitioner’s lengthy explanation in her own words, interpreted into English, the new staff members says, “Wow! No wonder I didn’t understand what you were telling me in Spanish! I don’t think I can understand it in English either!” In the end, she gets the paperwork she needs to be able to attempt to get her ex to sign off on the changes, and to have him served and a hearing set if not. All’s well that ends well, and I rush back to the sentencing courtroom, where the sentencing prior to mine is still going on.

There is a rather obscure legal issue being argued before victim testimony is allowed, that may make a difference on how many years the defendant actually spends in prison. The prosecutor is arguing that the robbery and the stabbing are not one and the same. They are two separate counts and should be considered such for the purposes of determining the sentence in this matter. The defense, however, argues that he stabbed the victim as they struggled over the property so under the law, the state cannot in effect increase the punishment by bifurcating what was essentially one criminal act into two separate ones, as this would in effect be double jeopardy. The government cannot punish someone twice for the same crime.  Under both statute and case law, your honor, these two acts following one immediately upon the other should be merged because in fact they were a single criminal act, to wit, robbery. Meanwhile the row of victim’s support and the victim himself all sit in a state of agonizing tension and barely suppressed rage, listening to the defense attorney “talking bullshit,” as one of them puts it. They are shaking their heads and muttering deprecations.

When invited to testify, one of them gets up and directs himself to the perpetrator. “I was there – I saw you,” he reminds him. “I don’t care what your lawyer says, it was NOT one crime – you took his stuff and there was no back and forth like she is saying. There was no struggle. That’s BS. You just took his stuff and no one resisted and then you stabbed him over and over for fun, for the pleasure of it. I saw your face! I’ll never forget it. You just did it for your own gratification. You are a sick person. You should spend the rest of your life behind bars. No one is safe with you around.”

He points out that the victim is a beloved member of the community, that his life matters, that he has many friends and family who love him. But probably no one loves the convict. Who could? The prisoner’s mother who is sitting quietly alone perceptibly winces at that, like a shiver over her shoulders. I wonder how many sentencing hearings she has sat through in silent, painful support. I wonder what it means to the defendant that his mother is there. Next the victim is invited to come up and testify.

“This man is no better than a vicious animal that should be put down. He wanted my wallet and I gave it to him. He wanted my phone and I gave it to him. Then for no reason he just started stabbing me. He stabbed me multiple times until I passed out. For no reason. He already had everything. I wasn’t fighting. If I hadn’t had a friend with me to help me, if the first responders hadn’t been so fast and so great, if the hospital hadn’t been able to stop the bleeding … I am just lucky, that’s all. I am lucky I survived. But that is no thanks to him. He was happy to try and kill me. I saw my jacket from that night – they showed me – my jacket is full of holes. Full of holes where he stabbed me over and over again. Lucky I had a thick jacket on. But he still managed to stab me through it, multiple times. After all this time, cannot forget it. I have nightmares. I relive it. I bear the scars on my body – I cannot get up even for one day and get in the shower and see myself in the mirror without seeing the scars. I will bear these marks on my body until the day I die. I can never forget… I want him to get the maximum sentence. I don’t think he has any remorse. He has never said he’s sorry. I don’t believe he is. He just stabbed me for his own pleasure, for his pleasure in my suffering. There is no reason for it. No reason! All I want is justice. I want justice!”

The strangest thing to me, the interpreter, is that the defense attorney is whispering into the ear of the defendant during this whole presentation, and neither of them are paying any attention to the victim, who is trembling with emotion, voice cracking, visibly shaken, and looking straight at them. But neither of them bother to even make a pretense of looking in his direction. I wonder at that. And I think about the concept of justice, that this victim wants, and his friends want, and the community wants. What is justice? How can there be justice? What would make it right? How could it ever be even or fair? Is there ever a chance for justice? Perhaps there could be some modicum of peace, of atonement, if the perpetrator truly repented and made amends. But justice? Making it come out even in the end?

Let’s say I stab you. You want justice. You deserve it! But even if you stab me in the same spot just as deeply with the same knife, it will not be fair. Because I stabbed you without warning for no reason at all, and you would be paying me back, not stabbing me randomly. I would expect it and maybe even feel that I deserved it. So it can never be fair. And no matter what happens to me, if you stab me or jail me or kill me, you cannot be healed of your own scars or any damage I caused you. My suffering will not take away your suffering. And yet something must be done. What is justice? How can there ever be justice? What would ease the suffering of the stabbing victim int his case? Ten years of jail for the perpetrator? Twenty? A life sentence? What about true remorse –what about a full apology? What about some kind of recompense, making license plates in jail and having the money he is paid go to the victim? Could we have a system where the victim could choose to stab the stabber an equal number of times, with the same weapon? An eye for an eye? Would that add any comfort? Would that be justice?

There is a story I heard second-hand when I lived in a small country where they had been a revolution and a change in government. The military dictatorship that had been toppled had been infamous for torturing political prisoners, and one of the released political prisoners became the head of the new national police force. Shortly thereafter, he was walking along the street and he came upon one of his torturers, who clearly recognized him and was terrified about what was now going to happen to him. The chief of police walked up to him, along with his bodyguards, and said, “My personal revenge upon you is to create a society in which your children can safely walk to school, in peace, carrying a bouquet of flowers for their teacher,” and the two men parted.

This interpreter is not suggesting that crime victims should feel or act this way. I would never presume to tell any suffering person what their suffering should mean to them or how to alleviate it. Especially not when it stems from a deep social injustice, a crime. Everyone has a right to their feelings and their point of view. And in such a sensitive matter I would never presume to judge. Forgiveness and vengeance and a quest for justice are such intimate and personal matters for each victim to confront.  And of course each society must come to terms with these issues through laws and the policies to implement them.

As my thoughts race and chase each other in these eternal questions, I am still sitting in the back row of the sentencing courtroom, as witness after witness stands up to testify for a maximum sentence. They have a long row of potential witnesses and I start getting worried about being able to get to my 1600 attorney client jail interview on time. I have to gather all my things because my office will be closed when I get out, but I am not allowed, as the lawyers are, to take my cell phone or laptop into the jail. I have to lock them up in a locker so that will add to the time it takes me – and the jail is in another building. It is going to be very close. I look down at the information provided for me which is very limited. Just name, case number, and courtroom. I see this sentencing defendant has six pseudonyms listed, all written in tiny print, so while I wait I make out a list in larger print of all the various names he has used in the system. I wonder what kind of crimes he has been convicted of. It is so strange to me that I get sent to sentencing hearings without even being told what the person is being sentenced for. It would be helpful to have more information ahead of time and wrap my mind around it, maybe have the chance to refresh my memory of the best way to say things like vehicle prowl, physical control, communication with a minor for immoral purposes, drive-by shooting, unlawful imprisonment or reckless endangerment.

I am destined not to find out what this crime was, because as the defendant is led into the room in cuffs, his defense attorney breezes in behind him and comes up to me and asks if I am here for him. When I answer in the affirmative, she informs me that he speaks good English, has had an interpreter on standby in the past but never used them, and has declined to use an interpreter the last few times. She suggests I stand by and have the judge dismiss me on the record so there is no confusion. So the judge asks him on the record in English if he in fact wishes to decline an interpreter both now and in the future and I am released. Free at last! Free to go to jail.

When I get to the office, the staff is telling me that she was going to tell that last add-on, the begging lawyer, that I couldn’t help him. But I told her it worked out. I understand we want to train the lawyers, so to speak, to order us on time and all that, but should somebody who is already scraping by and already living on the edge get their work crew converted to jail time and maybe lose their job because I want a break? Well some would answer differently to that, and of course it is not “my fault” if someone falls through the cracks and isn’t heard on the same day due to lack of interpreter. I cannot and should not take responsibility for every outcome in court! At the same time, if I can help I want to, as long as I can still do a good job. The trick is to make sure as interpreter that we are not truly tired to the point that we cannot accurately and effectively interpret. That is why for any cases that last more than say an hour or at most two, we have two team interpreters and we switch out every ten or fifteen minutes. But I don’t have time to tell you more about this, because I have to get to jail.

Dusk is falling as I gather my belongings and arrive at jail only to find that the huge lockers which I never need to use cost four quarters and I only have three quarters and two dimes and a nickel. This somehow seems like a great parable for this workday – I have the right amount of money but the way the machine is set up, I cannot use that money in order to store my items, which if I were an attorney instead of an interpreter (which by the way ALSO makes me EQUALLY an officer of the court) I would not have to store at all but could carry along with me on the understanding that I was not going to smuggle anything in or out of jail or take unauthorized photos inside the jail. As it is, I have to go around asking various attorneys I know if any of them can trade two dimes and a nickel for a quarter, and none of them can. Finally I ask the guard at the security checkpoint, and he agrees to the exchange, carefully gathering and counting my three coins before releasing the quarter in his other fist. He must have been shorted in the past. I try to believe it is not because I am an interpreter.

The lawyers is already sitting and waiting for me past security. It takes us so long to get through the other checkpoint, get our VISITOR badges, sign here and dig out our ID for them to hold onto until we return the visitor badges, that we have time to discuss martial arts, gardening, public spaces and cooking at home vs. dining out. We get to the floor in question and he goes to the intercom and tells the guards who we are there for. We wait in a little glassed in booth with a sliding door. The one who finally approaches us on the inmate’s side of the glass is a young man  who looks very freaked out.  He sits down and picks up his end of the phone receiver.

The lawyer explains that he has been busy with a trial and then out of town but that now he is finally here to find out more about the case. He is going to read out to him a summary of the police report and he is going to ask him some questions. Then he is going to let the defendant ask him, the lawyer, questions. That will be it for today. Any questions before we start?

Yes, why am I detained? I don’t understand why I am in here. How could they think I would commit a crime and then just sit there. I was at the hospital with her while the doctor was checking her. I was worried so I went to the room and I was trying to ask if I could see her and then two police called out my name and I said yes that is me and then they arrested me! They arrested me!

Time for a very important interpreter note: This is NOT the specific set of factual details that I interpreted on this particular day in court. It is a combination of various cases which sadly tend to repeat similar details over and over again, so that each case sounds a lot like other cases, but no, this interpreter has no intention here or elsewhere to reveal confidential information and affect the outcome of any case.

The attorney cuts him off. “Well, we will get to that. We can talk about your detention. But let’s start by getting through the police report. Let’s see… it says here that your wife came upon you and you were in bed with her child. You were dressed but the way you were asleep and the way you were holding her just didn’t seem right to her. She woke you both up and started questioning you. You denied everything and said she is just like a daughter to you and you could never do anything like that. But over the next few weeks and both police and Child Protective Services investigated the case, the child reported that you have been touching her inappropriately for three years. She gave details as set for below.

This interpreter is not going to set forth any such details. I wish I never heard them. I wish most of all with all my maternal heart that they never happened. I wish that every time I heard a suspect claim innocence that it could be true.  I wish that such things were truly unthinkable not just because someone is caught and embarrassed, but because we as grownup decent people see the sacred spark that lives inside the protected innocence of each and every child.  I wish that not one of us would seek self-gratification at the cost of putting out that sacred fire, of extinguishing an irretrievable part of that young person’s basic constitution, of who they are and who they will let themselves be for the rest of their lives.

I wish that we were all cognizant of the cost of our pleasure to the point of being able to forego it as the only way to avoid making others suffer needlessly. I wish that there was no one living who could take pleasure in the pain and suffering of others. I cannot understand how these barriers do not exist in all living creatures. Not just in sexual abuse but in not wanting to hurt another person’s sacred core, in not wanting to cause harm, especially needlessly. We are all so interwoven and we are all so connected that the trite-sounding phrase that an injury to one is an injury to all is not so far off.  The things we do reach well beyond our knowledge.

But now I am of course sitting next to a defense attorney in a dirty little booth with other lawyers talking loudly in the other booths and there are voices on an intercom and the echoed sounds of inmates on a concrete floor and the defendant does not know how to hold the old-fashioned phone set with the mouthpiece close to his mouth so I have to keep asking the lawyer for permission to ask the defendant in Spanish to talk closer to the phone and then interpreting back when the defendant keeps saying he is sorry and he will now. The lawyer pulls himself up and asks a question with his pen poised above the legal pad.

“Now that I have read you the police report, in relevant part, I am going to ask you a question that I ask all of my clients who are accused of a crime of this nature. Can you think of any reason why this person made such an accusation?”

I am sorry, folks, but this impartial interpreter is tired. And in her non-interpreter mind, she daydreams about some day, even years from now, on a totally different case, hearing the one answer that she guesses this lawyer has not heard to date: “Yeah – because I did it.”

Now, as a court-trained interpreter I understand why defense attorneys tend not to ask the defendant if they did it. In one sense, it doesn’t matter. I know, that sounds horrible. But the defense is going to be put on in a substantially similar manner for a guilty and an innocent defendant. Another point is that the whole system is based on the premise that we are all innocent until proven guilty, so there is a duty for us all to presume the innocence of each accused until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (or until they plead guilty).

The third reason that may not be as widely known is that not even defense attorneys are allowed to sit back and watch their clients commit perjury. That means that if a defendant tells the attorney yes I committed this crime, the attorney is not allowed to put the defendant on the stand and watch him lie that he did not commit the crime. The defense attorney as an officer of the court cannot sit by for that. So he would have to either plea the defendant out (have him plead guilty) or have him sit silently in the courtroom, not testifying because he cannot get up and lie if the lawyers “knows” it is a lie.

So at the same time the lawyer is carefully telling the defendant that he doesn’t believe everything in the police report, and that he wonders what reason the victim could have to say these terrible things, he is also warning the defendant not to talk about his crime to others. “You need to understand that only what you and I talk about is confidential. Everything else that you say here is being recorded, including any visits and even any phone calls. Do not talk to anyone about the details of … the incidents in questions. Not even with other inmates. And especially do not talk about it with any friends or family, because their calls and visits will be monitored and they can be forced to testify against you. You don’t talk about your case to anyone but me or my investigator. Understood?”

Of course it is not understood. How can anyone grasp the overwhelming complexities of the legal system, the criminal justice system, local rules and practices, the interface between immigration and jail, what exactly you can and cannot tell your lawyer, what people that you loved and hurt or didn’t hurt are going to do and say to help you or hurt you and how much of what you have done or not done will end up being a part of your permanent record? How can any bit of driftwood on the ocean, dirty or clean, broken or whole, do more than be tossed about, at the will of forces immeasurably greater than itself?

The defendant who is really very much on edge and anxious and scared and confused while still eagerly wanting to pour out his defense, proclaim his innocence even of crimes of thought, is starting to pour into the ear of the interpreter who then pours into the ear of the attorney facts, claims, stories, thoughts, values held, snippets of conversation, that horrible moment at the hospital when he was arrested in front of his daughter. Well, he thinks of her as his own, he has raised her from a child. He could no more touch her in a hurtful way than he could his own biological children. Surely the lawyer can see this! My God! He tried to tell his wife this but she didn’t believe it, she is crazy! The whole thing is crazy! How can he get out of jail, how can he make this end?

He is watching as the lawyer methodically packs up his things and puts on his raincoat – he talks faster and faster as if to hold the lawyer in place with his torrent of words. But the lawyer interrupts him to say, yes, yes, we will get to all that later, but first of all I am going to arrange for you to have an evaluation and don’t worry because if it comes out bad for you, I don’t have to show it to the prosecution, but if it looks good for you, if it shows that hey this guy doesn’t have that kind of problem, you know, this guy doesn’t, you know, think like that, well then I can give a copy of it to the prosecutor, and it will help your case. So you just hang tight! I will be in touch.

Presumably the evaluation that the lawyer is referring to is the Peter Meter, although he doesn’t name it or explain it at all. It is an evaluation which includes the use of the penile plethysmograph or phallometry. Ironically, the Peter Meter was invented in Eastern Europe as a way both to uncover homosexual men, who were considered criminals under the law, and to catch military conscripts who were trying to (criminally) avoid serving by claiming to be (criminally) gay. It was only after use that it was discovered to be a fair indicator of not only gender but age of the subject’s target group. In the most common method I believe a ring is placed around the base of a penis that can measure even mild arousal and then various audio or video files are presented while responses are measured.

The Peter Meter is now considered one of the most reliable methods available for assessing the likelihood of reoffending and of course for trying to show that a certain individual is (or is not) attracted to a certain group. One of the defense attorneys I worked with in the past told me he was wildly curious to try the test himself except that he feared that a nervous erection might get him listed as a likely offender so he never dared to. In any case, we have now taken leave of this inmate and he is blissfully ignorant of any details related to the evaluation he will soon be receiving. Sufficient unto the day are the sorrows of the day. I have read something similar, and it certainly feels true to me at his moment, as I remove my items from the jail locker.

It is too dark and rainy to know how foggy it is, and this also may be a parable for the day’s work. I pull up my hood and walk hunched over past the homeless people waiting for the nearby shelter to open for the night. Past two regulars who sell the homeless newspapers. Past hospital, government and courthouse staff along with business commuters who gather at the same bus stop along with others. A man in a wheelchair, a woman with a wet dog she cuddles anyway, a young couple arguing, two tourists holding a wet map and asking a question of a helpful local. A psychotic having an intense conversation with an invisible enemy who won’t fucking leave him alone. A tired bicyclist waiting for the bus with the blessed bicycle racks on front. A bus driver waiting for his assigned bus to arrive, to whom a waiting passenger says gratefully, I’m glad it’s you and not me! Two men yelling obscenities at each other across the street, and then sharing a cigarette. I notice a ferry crossing the water and realize,  since I can see so far, that it is not foggy any more. Even through the rain, the lights reflect on the water as the ferry carries people along to their next destination. My clothes are getting damp as the winds change direction. Finally, I am able to board a crowded bus, claim a precious seat, and lean back in blessed silence.

I leave the city behind to the best of my ability mentally as well as physically and after a time I pull the bell for my stop and make my way to my own home sweet home, where my husband asks, “How was your day today?”

“Words cannot describe…” I begin.

“Yours can,” he interrupts me, as he always does.

So I decide to write down these words and here they are – a small slice of one day in the life of a court interpreter.

There is so much more yet there is only so much… but that is another story.


I quietly walked out of a courtroom today out of concern that my face might begin to show anything less than neutrality as I listened to a domestic violence case while awaiting the hearing I was due to interpret for.  I am glad it was not my case to interpret.  It was a case where a no-contact order had been violated, and as part of an elaborately conceived defense, there was an arrangement for a private attorney to show up with the victim and ask the judge to drop the no-contact order on her behalf before ruling on the violation.

It struck me, because while I have seen many victims advocate for their abusers, I have have never seen a victim come in with a private attorney to ask to not be protected.  In any case, what follows is the victim’s attorney’s actual argument, as presented to the court.

“Your Honor, this is a very unusual case.  There is nothing typical about it.  My client is not the type of person who needs a no-contact order.  She is very strong young woman!  I have met with her several times and it is clear that she is also intelligent.  And I think it is important to point out that she has been in a long-term relationship with the defendant.   So she can clearly protect herself!”

Wow, okay buddy.  Good to know that, according to your incredibly rich and varied life experience, you believe that only weak and stupid sluts who have a series of shorter term relationships need no-contact orders or suffer from domestic violence, whereas you are so privileged to represent this very special victim who is “not the type”.  So nice for you!  So lovely that you can come to court with a strong, intelligent, loving woman who has stayed in a relationship where she gets beaten for several years, and who has now agreed to come to court and try and help her batterer avoid the consequences of his actions.  And that you further argue that because she (in direct contrast to the rest of us stupid hos) is so strong and intelligent that she couldn’t possibly need or want protection from the court.  Wow.

I guess I can muster a drop of sympathy for aggressors because at this moment I would love to slap some sense into you, learned private counsel.  And then ask you to sit in court while I explain to the judge in open court that for a man, you are “not the type” to be assaulted, because you are actually not stupid and weak  with multiple partners (like most crime victims we know, right?!)  As further proof, you have a long history of staying in unhealthy relationships, so that means you don’t get slapped around.  “Therefore I would like my assault charges dropped.  Because my victim is so unusual.  Not like the typical pathetic men we see in here, your honor.”

Well, I just wish he WERE more unusual.  I wish his type were extinct.

Good news, though.  The judge thanked the victim for taking the time to come into court, and acknowledged that her attorney is representing that she does not want protection.  However, the judge has not heard anything unusual about the victim or the defendant that would warrant a change to the original order, in which the defendant avoided jail by agreeing to have no contact with the victim for two years.

Thank you, Your Honor.  Even if there is still so much public ignorance about domestic violence, at least this court understands that “typical victims” are quite often intelligent, strong, and loving people in long-term relationships.  Thank you, Your Honor, for helping us to peel away one more layer of the shaming and victim-blaming that keeps so many victims silent and afraid.  And abused.  I truly believe you are changing some lives for the better with these enlightened rulings.