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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The United States Department of Justice says North Carolina's courts are violating the Civil Rights Act by failing to provide equal access to non-English speakers.
"We have been seeing these cases over the course of several years," said Jess George, the executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte.
The Coalition, along with the Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society of Charlotte asked for an investigation into the state's justice system to see whether a perceived lack of foreign language interpreters violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
George said the battle isn't just over criminal court, but civil cases as well. She gave one recent exampled from Mecklenburg County.
"There was a woman with her four boys living in a shelter, and she needed to get a restraining order against her abusive husband," said George.
The woman spoke English but had a thick accent. The judge required her to pay for an interpreter, but she didn't have the $80 to $100 needed.
"The judge dismissed her request for a restraining order and gave custody of her four boys to the abusive husband," said George.
That case and 17 others made their way to the US Department of Justice, which decided that some changes need to happen inside North Carolina's courtrooms. The DOJ found non-English speakers aren't getting the interpreters they need...or can't afford them.
They say that can lead to more jail time in criminal cases and a lack of justice in civil cases.
The state of North Carolina responded to those claims by saying in part, "...we are disappointed in USDOJ's finding that interpreters are not being provided under state law."
The statement went on to say the state believes the DOJ's 18 examples to be "isolated cases among the more than three million cases disposed of each year."
George said the cases are anything but isolated, and she thinks the DOJ's decision will be a step in the right direction for North Carolina.
The NC Administrative Office of the Courts has until March 29 to let the DOJ know if it plans to implement changes when it comes to interpreters. If the state does not make the suggested changes, it could lose millions in federal funding or face law suits.