How The Courts Don’t Work: Views Of A Low-Down Magistrate In The Basement Of The Jail

Occasionally a cop book comes along that’s just plain fun. Lies, Damned Lies, and Testimony isn’t one of them. It’s a magistrate book that’s just plain fun. The author, John Jasper, answered an ad appearing somewhere in Virginia and asking for a magistrate. He got the job.

As Jasper describes it, a magistrate’s view of life and the legal system bears little semblance to theory as taught in civics courses. Nothing works terribly well. Textbook solutions don’t fit. Humanity isn’t particularly admirable. The law with its juries and august attorneys and high principles doesn’t apply. His is a grittier world.

He sees the late-night drunks who are boisterously combative before passing out and urinating on themselves, the career petty criminal on his umpty-fifth arrest for shoplifting, the women beaten by their husbands and the women who coldly abuse their children or, in divorces, make false accusations of molestation against their husbands, judges who are fools and prosecutors who won’t prosecute. Somehow from all of this Jasper has written a very funny book that Steinbeck or Damon Runyan would understand.

“In came another officer with a DWI with the best-looking pair of legs that I’d seen in many a year. Black fishnet stockings, black leather miniskirt, expensive silk blouse, high proud bust, long blond hair. Everyone became quiet. There were just two minor problems — the combat boots and the black moustache.”

There was the DWI who asked, “If you’re not supposed to drink and drive, how come bars got parking lots?” (I’m still trying to come up with an answer.)

There’s the Very Important Boozer:

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

I look at him. “A drunk, perhaps?”

“I’ve only had two glasses of white wine. I’m certainly not drunk. You can’t judge me like that.”

“But that’s exactly what they pay me to do.”

Jasper tells of the crackhead who set out one night with his gun to make his fortune by robbing 7-Elevens. He was, says Jasper, the only person in the United States who didn’t know that 7-Elevens keep only small amounts of money at night. The first one got him fifteen dollars, the second, seventeen. The cops noticed a pattern.

“When our crackhead walked out after robbing the fourth 7-Eleven, he was facing enough weaponry to kill him at least 10,000 times over.” He had a total of $57.

“At the bail hearing, his only question to me was, ‘Hey, man, how many times does four go into fifty-seven?’”

It actually happens: There was the kid who got a job application at a shoe store, took it home, filled it out, and brought it back the next day. While the manager was looking the other way, the kid ran out with a pair of shoes. The job application had his correct name and address.

While Jasper is endlessly amusing, the book really isn’t. He tells funny stories, but he also tells of brutality and misery. He sees a legal system that doesn’t work, judges who are dull-witted and arrogant, courts that don’t punish and rulings that are, in his word, “bizarre.” Criminals, he says, are getting worse.

“The perpetrators I see every day are more arrogant, more hostile than ever. Their ever-more-outrageous behavior, both inside and out of jail, is met with weak, almost meaningless punishment. They sneer at it, they laugh at it–literally. When they get out, never anymore a very long wait, why not continue the assaults, robberies and thefts? It’s easy and, to them, fun.”

Or: “Not that long ago there was a very well-defined line between right and wrong. That line has been defaced and smudged?Everything is a compromise, a plea bargain. It’s a destructive trend born out of convenience and lack of will. It is easier to compromise than to make hard decisions.”

Yep. I’ve been saying this for years in Police Beat, not because I’m especially perceptive but because it’s obvious to anyone who spends thirty seconds on the beat. Hey, gang–it’s not just crazy old Fred. “Civilized behavior wanes while the lawmakers, courts, and appointed experts ignore the reality and duck the hard decisions.”

Sez me, if you want to know how things work, or at least happen, how the legal system behaves down close to the sidewalk, without the usual heavy spin and ideology that you get from the media, this book is worth $14.95 (Amazon has it) or a trip to the library. It ain’t political. Jasper may be a Democrat. It’s just how things are.

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