Language impairments -- deficits in language and the ability to use it -- occur at starkly elevated rates among adolescents and adults charged with and convicted of crimes. These impairments have serious ramifications for the quality of justice. In this article, we focus specifically on the effects of a client's language impairment on the attorney-client relationship, the constitutional realm that suffers most when a client lacks essential communication skills. The effects of language impairment can be seen in a client's ability to work with a lawyer in the first place, tell a story, comprehend legal information, and make a rational and informed decision. This article shows how these effects play themselves out within the attorney-client relationship, and the impact on the lawyer's ability to meet her constitutional and ethical obligations. We also propose concrete steps for improving the quality of communication within the attorney-client relationship. While attorneys will obviously shoulder much of the responsibility, judges and prosecutors are not exempt. A client's poor communication skills are not simply be "the lawyer's problem," but a matter of great concern for all stakeholders in the justice system.
For over eighty years, social scientists have known that poor language skills are closely associated with the constellation of emotional and behavioral disturbances routinely seen in juvenile and criminal court. These include conduct disorder, academic deficits, social incompetence, impulsivity, and even aggression. As we might expect, researchers have also found that language impairments are present at a high rate within juvenile and adult correctional institutions. So far however, the law has barely acknowledged even the existence of this body of social science, let alone its significance for the administration of justice, rehabilitation, and public safety. This article is an attempt to bring this phenomenon to light. It examines why widespread language deficits among so many juvenile and adult defendants should be a matter of great concern for the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and perhaps more importantly, what we can do about it.
Prelingual deafness (hearing loss from birth or early childhood) is a complicated communication disorder that has a profound effect on language and knowledge acquisition, language usage, and overall linguistic ability. This means that most deaf defendants will be at a marked disadvantage in their dealings with the criminal or juvenile justice systems. It also means that simply providing an interpreter will not be an adequate remedy. This article looks at the intertwined issues of deafness, language, interpretation, and their cumulative effect on deaf people's ability to meaningfully participate in the justice system.