When I think of the criminal justice system, the theme song to Law and Order pops into my head, and I can see images of a courtroom and witnesses testifying on the stand. The reality is much more complicated and mundane than that. A great deal of justice is meted at the local level. Michael Bradford, a local criminal magistrate, is a living example of this reality.
You may be thinking, what the heck is a magistrate? I was wondering the same thing until I had the opportunity to speak with Bradford. In the U.S., there are two types of magistrates, civil and criminal. Those in the criminal sector are considered expert judges and are responsible for the preliminary steps in the process of entering the correctional system. This means they write arrest warrants, search warrants, set a date for a preliminary hearing, and set bond. Their main responsibility is ensuring the police have probable cause either for an arrest or a search. Civil magistrates, on the other hand, deal with lawsuits up to a certain amount. Many of the duties of magistrates vary from state to state.
Bradford currently works the day shift in the magistrate’s office, located in the basement of the Forsyth County Detention Center on Church Street downtown. When I stepped into the magistrate’s office it looked like an ordinary place: the tidy kitchenette with coffee mugs, desks, filing cabinets, tinsel and ornaments to spruce the place up for the holiday season. But look through the window and you’ll see the truth. Three holding cells line the opposite wall with an open space nicknamed the “drunk tank” in between. Here, you can find cops, deputy sheriffs, probation officers, and, of course, individuals accused or suspected of committing a crime.
According to Bradford, when the holding area is full, especially at night, things can get a little crazy. The magistrates see a wide array of people, at varying levels of sobriety.
“People are crazy, everybody’s drunk,” Bradford said. “A lot of people for some reason want to get naked. There’s lots of mooning and urination. You see a lot of wild stuff.”
But the more problematic aspect of his work, beyond the drunken people he issues arrest warrants for, are those making frequent appearances. Bradford explained that many of the people he sees are repeat offenders. The same folks are often in for substance abuse charges or other petty crimes. Many DWI offenders are in there more than once. “You see a lot of the same people,” he said.
Bradford is a former probation officer, meaning he supervised people who received probation as a sentence instead of incarceration. He sees many of his former probation “clients” in the holding cells in his office. Often they get a “quick dip” as punishment; they spend two or three days in the jail above the magistrate’s office. Probation officers don’t need to get permission from a judge in order to do this.
Another group is a constant presence in the office. “I see a lot of homeless people, especially in the winter. They just want somewhere to stay,” he said. Bradford later mentioned that this was sad, but they let themselves get taken in for vagrancy or substance abuse in order to get off the streets.
During my visit to the jail’s basement, I saw a man brought in on charges of domestic abuse. He was yelling, protesting his innocence, claiming he had been attacked first. Another magistrate in the office explained that he was a frequent flyer there (a nickname for a habitual offender), always in for the same charges with the same woman. He was required to spend 48 hours in jail without the possibility of bail, by state law.
So if we know that the same people are ending up in jail time after time, why aren’t we (locally, nationally) addressing the issue of recidivism (reoffending)? If officials recognize that the criminal justice system creates a “vicious circle”, then why aren’t steps being taken to create lasting change in our communities?
Bradford and his coworkers are not the arbiters of justice; as his colleague put it, they’re just “paper pushers.” They cannot be expected to enact the kinds of changes we need to see.
The shows we watch on TV, like Law and Order, show us glamorous court rooms and heroic police who have put the bad guys behind bars. They don’t show us the reality of life within the correctional system. Crime and its control are glamorized in our cultural consciousness, but life is not like the movies. It is time for us to take a second look at the patterns and causes of crime in our community. The issues facing local correctional agencies like the magistrate’s office aren’t new; the same crimes and the same faces resurface again and again. Homelessness, substance abuse, and domestic abuse are chronic issues plaguing the jails of Winston-Salem. Instead of looking to individuals like Michael Bradford to fix these issues, we should reclaim our criminal justice system and focus on creating a community that fosters strong social ties, reduces recidivism, and seeks to bring people back into the fold.