How the Justice System Works


If you think about it, it is inherently implausible that the state could be an effective administrator of justice, for which there is a supply and demand like any other good. Shortages, inefficiencies, arbitrariness, and underlying chaos all around are going to be inherent in the attempt.

Because we are dealing here with the meting out of coercion, we can add that inhumane treatment and outright cruelty are also likely to be an inherent part of the system.

Even so, nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed in the courtroom the other day. Like a fool, I thought I might be able to beat a traffic ticket that I received a block from my home. The policeman says I slowed almost to a stop rather than completely stopped at a stop sign on a three-way stop where there were no cars in any case. So my prize was a ticket.

The officer says I’m not guilty but I have to sign this form anyway. I can challenge it on my court date. So, again foolishly, I decide not to go the route of everyone else — admit guilt and cough off — but instead decide to show up at court.

Except that on my appointed date, the judge wasn’t there. Why? They wouldn’t say. Is he sleeping in? No, was the answer. Taking a family vacation? Outrageous that I should even ask! Okay, then, how about I see the substitute judge? There is no such thing. But if I hadn’t shown up I would go to jail for “failure to appear.” How is it that he can fail to show up and everyone acts like this is normal.

Silly me. This is the state. Different rules apply to it as versus me. So I am given a new court day, 6 weeks later.

I show up again, and tell the clerk that I plan to say that I am not guilty. This moved my papers to the bottom of the stack, which is a very bad omen. I would end up sitting in the courtroom all morning, listening to some 40 cases of people who are not so foolish as to protest the judgment of the officer of the law.

But then again, it wasn’t so bad. I got an education. It turns out that in a courtroom packed with criminals, not even one of the people who appeared before the judge was a danger to society. Nearly all were in for victimless crimes. The two who had perpetrated actual crimes — petty theft from Wal-Mart and the local mall — could have easily been dealt with without involving the state. So far as I could tell, the place could have been emptied out completely and our little community would have been no worse off, and massive human suffering could have been avoided.

But that’s not the way it works. These people, overwhelming black and poor but dressed very nicely in the hope of impressing the master, found themselves entangled in the web and thereby elicited the glare and killer instinct of the spider. How painful it was to watch and not be able to do anything about it.

The first case turned out to be typical. This was a person picked up for “public intoxication,” which amounted to over-celebrating following a football victory and daring to walk on the government’s sidewalks under the influence of one too many. Arrested, jailed, bailed out. Now was the time to face the judge.

What is your plea? Guilty, your honor.

What do you have to say for yourself? I’m so sorry that I did this and I won’t do it again.

The judge then decides to be lenient. He gives the minimum fine plus court costs. I couldn’t find any consistency in this pricing scheme, but generally it amounted to between $400 and $1,500. The judge asks the person to pay it now. When the person says that he doesn’t have the money, the judge considers a payment plan, contingent on the guilty declaring his income to the courtroom, which averages $400 per month.

How about you pay $100 per month? Fine.

Oh and there’s one more thing. The criminal’s driver’s license is suspended for six months. How can he get to work? That his problem. It is a very special problem since the court has decided to loot the person of a quarter of his income during this very period. How can you keep your job? Hard to say. Life is tough. And that’s the price you pay for drinking a few beers and daring to walk on the sidewalk.

So on it went for person after person. Tragedy all around. Pointless suffering. There were other victimless crimes. There were a few people who smoked pot — and one who carried a joint clip or some other drug paraphernalia in his car. There was a person who made a “false report,” and I never did figure out what that was. In any case, he was dragged off to jail on the spot.

But what about the actual crimes? A lady had stuffed a package of sliced ham or something into her purse while shopping at Wal-Mart. She was fined $800 and had her license taken away.

What do you have to say for yourself, asked the judge. “I’m very sorry. I need to find other ways to deal with my lack of money,” she answered.

Yes, you do, because “we will not tolerate theft in this town,” unless, he might have added, it is done by the judge under the cover of the law.

Oh, one more thing. This lady was banned from Wal-Mart for life. Now, this sounds extreme, but it was the only decision taken that day that had the feel of something potentially reasonable. Might Wal-Mart have handed down this penalty itself? Isn’t this a good principle, keeping the thieves away from its store? Makes sense, perhaps not for a lifetime but perhaps for a year or two.

But there is one problem. Wal-Mart can’t do that. Its shopping space is considered under federal law to be a “public space,” even though it is entirely privately owned. You can’t decide who you are going to let in or out so long as you charge no membership fee. It has to accept all comers. Only the state can ban people from public property. And so Wal-Mart must use the state’s services. It is coerced like everyone else. A compassionate and reasonable private solution is against the law.

But keep in mind that this is a case of theft. The others: they had done no harm to anyone.

The machine continued to operate. The judge hardly looked up, not even to notice how much these nice but exceedingly poor people dressed in an attempt to impress him. They and their lives meant nothing. It was all about keeping the machine working.

Finally 11am rolls around. The court had already raised for itself about $20,000, from my calculation. The judge says that there will be a short recess before he hears the not-guilty cases, mine among them. He will then assign public defenders to those whose income is low enough and then schedule jury hearings.

In other words, I would have to wait and then return at some later date.

My kids, who came with me, persuaded me that this was hopeless and ridiculous and very costly. I should declare my guilt and pay the $200 and be free. They didn’t want their Dad entangled anymore in this system. This is what I did, and I was free to go and join the multitudes who put up with this system of blackmail and money extraction every hour and know better than to attempt to use the system to challenge it.

Most people in my position would have never gone to court, and thereby they will never have seen just how cruel this system is for the poor, for minorities, and for everyone who gets tangled up in this web of coercion and legalized plunder.

But now I understand something more fully that I once only understood abstractly. I see how utterly ridiculous it is to think that the state can be the right means to help those who are poor or living at the margins of society. The state is their enemy, as it is for everyone else.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of Comment on the Mises blog.

Jeffrey Tucker Archives