Many African Americans’ court testimony is inaccurately transcribed, according to a recent Criminal Legal News story.
A recent study published in the Linguistic Society of America journal, Language, found that court reporters frequently misunderstand and misquote speakers of African American English (AAE) during court proceedings, an issue that leads to widespread deprivation of constitutional rights.
“Once something is in the court record via the transcript, it legally becomes what was said, even if it is inaccurate, which brings up the question of due process and equal protection under the law if some people are less likely to be accurately transcribed than others,” said study co-author Jessica Kalbfeld.
Court reporters must prove in a proficiency test at least 95 percent accuracy in Standard American English, including specific legal and medical terminology. The participants in the study didn’t do nearly as well with AAE, sometimes referred to as “broken” English..
The best performed at 91.2 percent, the worst at 58.4 percent, with an average of 82.9 percent. But word accuracy is only the beginning. According to the study, court reporters’altered the who, what, when, where and force of AAE speakers’ words in 31 percent of transcriptions gathered for the study.
The phrase “he don’t be in that neighborhood,” which should be translated as “he isn’t usually in that neighborhood,” became “we are going to be in this neighborhood” in the transcription.
“The injustice involved in court reporting is intolerable and an insult to the legal notion of all citizens’ receiving equal treatment under the law,” said Professor Arthur Spears, a linguist not involved in the study.
The authors of the study suggested that a possible reason for the lack of accuracy in AAE transcriptions is a workplace culture where court reporters often are admonished for asking to have a phrase repeated or clarified.
One court reporter told the study’s authors that they frequently do not understand the dialect they are asked to transcribe and that they frame it as a deficiency on the part of the speaker.
The authors proposed that all court reporters should be certified not just on ‘standard’ English, but on other dialects as well, in particular those they are most likely to encounter.
When court reporters are unable to accurately record spoken phrases because of linguistic variations, they are simply “incapable of performing their basic job duties.”
“This is the result of a long historical process that will take enormous effort and goodwill to undo,” the studies’ authors said.