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South Dakota Courts Launch Pilot for Live Interpreters in Clerks' Offices – Mitchell Republic

Non-English speakers in South Dakota in five counties can now speak to an interpreter through videoconferencing software when seeking advice and assistance from court reporters.

The South Dakota Unified Judicial System provides free access to interpreters – whether in-person or virtual – in the courtroom. The technology upgrade is part of a pilot program where the software will make it easier to overcome language barriers outside of the courtroom. In addition to video interpreting, the program offers live AI-powered interpreting services and translation services.

While the court system tracks how often an interpreter was needed in a courtroom – 3,570 in 2023 – there is a “data gap” about how often interpreters are needed outside the courtroom but still within the court system, said Greg Sattizahn of the UJS- Court Administrator.

“In order to meaningfully participate in a trial, someone has to understand what is happening,” Sattizahn said, “whether it is the rights read out by the judge, witness statements, or the opportunity to consult with your attorney and discuss strategy or on it “It is important for them to participate meaningfully so that language access creates a level playing field for those who do not speak English.”

Historically, and in the remaining 61 counties of South Dakota, clerks have used interpreting services over the telephone, which can sometimes be inconvenient when the phone is passed back and forth between the clerk and the customer.

“When you think about court reporters, you get people who speak all kinds of languages ​​and come in all kinds of situations,” Sattizahn said. “They can’t prepare a script for that, so you have to be prepared to adapt.”

The Minnehaha County Clerk of Court translates a protective order application form from English to Spanish using an image and software via Certified Languages ​​International at the Minnehaha County Courthouse on April 25, 2024. The device is part of a pilot program to improve language access in the state court system.

Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight

Earlier this spring, an iPad was delivered to each of five counties: Minnehaha, Brookings, Aurora, Yankton and Beadle counties. The pilot costs about $750 for each iPad, plus a $40 monthly data plan for each device. Over five months, the total cost of the pilot is approximately $4,750.

If expanded statewide, such a program would incur additional one-time costs of over $40,000 for iPads and cost the state over $2,500 per month for the data plan. The videoconferencing system costs $2 per minute and is used under the court system's existing contract with Certified Languages ​​International.

Minnehaha, which includes Sioux Falls, and Beadle, which includes Huron, are two counties that have experienced the most language barrier issues, Sattizahn said. In Huron, meat processing jobs have attracted immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America.

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The Minnehaha County Clerk of Court uses software from Certified Languages ​​International to interpret a conversation between Spanish and English at the Minnehaha County Courthouse on April 25, 2024. The device is part of a pilot program to improve language access in the state court system.

Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight

About 7% of South Dakotans – about 62,800 people – speak a language other than English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 17,700 people in South Dakota speak English less than “very well.”

The pilot will run throughout the summer, but could last longer if rural counties need more time to test interactions. The decision to expand will be based on the quality of interactions and not the frequency of their use.

“Given the geographic challenges and our ability to recruit interpreters, we probably need to look to technology for as many solutions as possible,” Sattizahn said. “Technology offers us the greatest potential.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story can be found at

South Dakota Searchlight website.

South Dakota Searchlight provides free news and commentary on critical issues facing the state.

Anna Harden

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