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How language and dialect can influence criminal cases

On Behalf of | Feb 8, 2019 | Criminal Defense |

Prisons and jails in Missouri and around the country have a disproportionately high number of black inmates. Civil rights groups say that this is the result of systemic racism in the criminal justice system and have referred to the mass incarceration of African-Americans as the new Jim Crow, but there are situations where the unfair treatment black defendants receive is unintentional rather than malicious.

A study scheduled to be published in the academic journal Language discusses how the way black defendants speak can be difficult for white transcribers and stenographers to understand, and it also reveals that seemingly innocuous mistakes can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Researchers found that transcribers could only paraphrase one in three sentences spoken by African-Americans correctly, and they made errors 40 percent of the time.

This is a sensitive issue, and law enforcement efforts to find transcribers more familiar with African-American Vernacular English are often met with derision. However, AAVE is fairly easy to learn as it is based on 25 grammatical attributes that are used in African-American communities across the country. This suggests that understanding this linguistic style would be a relatively straightforward way to make the criminal justice system more equitable. It could also be accomplished without legislative intervention.

African-American defendants often feel that the police and courts treat them unfairly, and the figures suggest that this belief may not be completely unfounded. Communications difficulties and the misunderstandings they often give rise to are an example of how this bias may sometimes be inadvertent, and they also show why it is so important for criminal defendants to avail themselves of their rights to remain silent and speak with a lawyer. Experienced criminal defense attorneys might work to help ensure that what their clients say is fully understood and not subject to misinterpretation.