I came across a story of a small business college in Chicago, MacCormac College, which enrolls a lot of racial minorities who become court stenographers. It’s a 2-year program that cost about $25,000 and has a 100% placement rate for those who graduate. Entry level positions start at around $45k and reach $100k with experience. With the average court stenographer age of 51 years old, this is one of the highest jobs in demand in America.

While this story was collecting digital dust on my PC waiting for me to share, a scathing new story popped up out of Philadelphia reveling how inaccurate court reporting is as stenographers have a hard time transcribing African American English Vernacular (AAEV).

Before we get into the details, understand AAEV and Black slang are not the same. Slang suggests a word or phrase is informal and operates under no set of specific standards or grammar rules, where AAVE is its own language; has it’s own grammatical rules; is its own entire system of communicating; is born out of years of enslavement where languages of people brought over were combined with standard English practices of the United States which went on to create it own language that have been passed on in various iterations over generations.

People who speak African American English Vernacular are often stigmatized because there are moral, social, and intellectual assumptions made about them and who they are and what they’re capable of. Even beyond the negative stereotypes, it was found that court reporters own discomfort with Black terminology leads to incorrect transcriptions. The researchers found that the court reporters were not transcribing with any malicious intent but some have a very limited understanding of black dialect.

What did the study find?
They tested 27 court reporters for accuracy and comprehension in their transcribing and found court reporters in Philly regularly made errors in transcribing sentences that were spoken in African American Vernacular English. On average, the reporters made errors in 2 out of every 5 sentences. Pennsylvania court reporters must score a 95% accuracy on the test they take to certify as a court reporter. In this study they were only correct on 60% of their sentences.

All of the reporters, in addition to transcribing, were asked to paraphrase what was being said in each sentence. Here, the results were even worse than the transcriptions, with reporters correctly paraphrasing the sentences about 33 percent of the time.

40% of the sentences the court reporters transcribed had something wrong. 67% of attempts at paraphrasing we’re accurate and 11% of transcripts were called gibberish.

Black court reporters were 27% of the sample and scored higher at paraphrasing and made fewer mistakes around syntax but their transcription weren’t more accurate than their counterparts.

Here’s some examples – some are hilarious.

  • He come tell ’bout I’m gonna take the TV” was incorrectly transcribed as “I’m gonna take the TV.
  • That cop partner been got transferred.” A court reporter in the experiment took down this line as: “That cop partner, Ben, got transferred.”
  • The paper points to a 2007 dissenting opinion from a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The judge had listened to a recording from a 911 call and argued that it was not possible to know whether “he finna shoot me” was present or past tense. (“Finna” is a contraction of “fixing to.”) But the judge made a grammatical mistake: In African American English it is impossible for “he finna” to be in the past tense. The judge had consulted the site Urban Dictionary.
  • I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.” The state’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the police did not have to cease questioning him because “lawyer dog” was ambiguous and did not necessarily mean that he was invoking his right to counsel.
  • If you recall, in the Trayvon Martin case, his friend Rachel Jeantel testified in African American English. Attorneys prodded her to repeat her statements while critical observers lambasted her speech.

Why is this a problem?
People are not being afforded a sense of fairness and justice in the court system because the system is not responding to their language. It’s really important that people have meaningful access to the courts. And meaningful access means that we can be understood.

The finding have far reaching consequences because errors and misinterpretations in courtroom transcripts can go on to influence official court records in ways that are harmful to defendants. There can be impacts on exoneration, for being falsely accused, and sentencing disparities. It makes you think about how history will remember some of these cases when you consider how court transcripts impact someone’s appeal or as a piece of evidence in a later court case. Can you challenge a case based on these errors?

Could this be another example of systemic racism in the criminal justice system?

What Can be Done to fix this?  

We should recruit more black court reporters.

The authors of the report faulted the training that court reporters received, saying that it mostly used “classroom” English. “The training isn’t taking into account what they’re actually going to hear.” Accuracy in dialect should be tested in the court reporter certification process. If you only test the Queen’s English as the basis of what it means to be able to know how to transcribe, you are missing out on a host of other things.

There are a ton of jobs as a court stenographer for someone looking to enter the job market with steady and stable employment, especially if you’re young. The schooling is affordable compared to 4-year schools and private trade schools.

Including more black folks working in courtrooms where a lot of blacks are on trial could help made the recordings of the criminal justice proceedings much more fair and accurate.

There are no schools in the Philadelphia region teaching court reporting since the last of them, Orleans Technical Institute, removed it from their curriculum recently but the Harrisburg Area Community College and Luzerne County Community College has a program. With some digging, you may find online courses.

Sources: Philly.com, New York Times. ‘POD Save the People’ podcast January 29, 2019 – ‘I Exist.’