Ronald Paylor, charged with violating the Controlled Substances Act, which covers everything from marijuana to heroin, stands before Judge Paul R. Webber III as a courtroom mini-drama begins. The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sellinger, looks at Paylor, his voice heavy with dismay: "He's unemployed, he has a string of convictions, he's on probation."

Paylor's attorney replies that those convictions -- eight in all -- demonstrate that his client has faithfully shown up at court.

The judge cuts in -- "There's no indication he will not appear in court" -- and orders that Paylor be released into the custody of a third party, who will try to keep him out of trouble. With that, Ronald Paylor becomes, more or less, a free man.

This type of conversation takes place about 20,000 times a year in the District of Columbia Superior Court building. It is a typical day in the city's arraignment court, repeated six days a week, holidays included.

One lawyer calls the arraignment process "an assembly line" in the justice factory. Some lawyers, police and social service workers involved in the process question just how well the system works.

Last year more than 30,000 persons were arrested in the District. A third of those were either juveniles or adults picked up for minor violations: disorderly conduct, not paying a bus fare, and so on. These persons usually could pay a fine and go their way.

The other 20,000 went to arraignment court. It is there that a defendant first faces a judge, that he hears last night's street scuffle become the case of United States vs. himself. He can be released on his own recognizance, or into the custody of a third party, held until he meets bond, or held without bail. If he was on parole when arrested, he can be held five days while it is revoked.

But chances are he will leave arraignment court unacompanied by any officer of the law. That angers many people. When a policeman, politician, or newspaper editorial proclaims outrage at the "revolving door" of the criminal justice system, they often point to the arraignment court.

One reason the courthouse door "revolves" is that in the United States a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until convicted at a trial. The purpose of arraignment court is to ensure that a person will show up for trial when it is held. The judge's job is to determine if a defendant should be required to deposit money to be forfeited if he fails to appear for trial. In the District, as in about 20 states, the prosecutor is also legally able to argue that a person should be held without bail until brought to trial because he is likely to commit violent crimes if set free.

This is the way arraignment court went one Saturday this fall.

"All rise," the court clerk ordered at 11:36 a.m., as Webber entered the courtroom. In recent weeks there have been as many as 89 cases on the Saturday docket, but this particular morning was cold and windy, and there were only about 45 cases. (As U.S. Marshal J. Jerome Bullock observed, "The colder the weather, the fewer the lockups.") Charges ranged from embezzlement to "ADW ashtray" -- that is, assault with a deadly weapon, an ashtray. More than a third of all cases involved drugs. But first, minor cases, mainly drunk driving, were prosecuted by the District of Columbia's corporation counsel.

At 12:01 p.m. the court turned to the cases handled by the U.S. attorney's office. A court official ushered five federal prisoners into the courtroom from holding cells behind it. Like most who will appear in arraignment court this day, these defendants are men who appear to be between the ages of 18 and 28.

At 12:05, the third U.S. case was called and a familiar ritual began: The court clerk read out the defendant's name and the charge; the defense attorney waived a formal reading of the charges, said his client would plead not guilty, and asked for a trial date. The prosecutor raised the question of what to do with the defendant; the judge announced his decision -- and that was it.

Everybody but the defendant had gone through this routine hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. For his part, the defendant said nothing until the clerk asked if he understood the conditions of release. "Yes," he said.

In this case, the defense attorney, the prosecutor and the judge all agreed with the recommendation of the Pretrial Services Agency, which examines each arraignment court case: The defendant was released on personal recognizance with the condition that he enroll in a drug-treatment program. Conditional release is the most common outcome of the arraignment proceeding. In 1980, 40 percent of all defendants arraigned here won conditional release on personal recognizance conditions.

Even when there is disagreement between prosecutor and defense attorney, the entire exchange rarely takes more than five minutes. But the defendant's arraignment court appearance is only one step in a bureaucratic process involving stacks of paperwork by police officers, deputy U.S. attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, and courthouse workers such as the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency and the Substance Abuse Administration, which tests all prisoners for recent drug use (except on Saturdays, when, for budgetary reasons, it is closed).

Bruce Beaudin, head of the Pretrial Services Agency since it was formed in 1968, likened the arraignment process to an assembly line, to "putting a car together." Pretrial Services, he said, looks "at a piece called bail; the prosecutor looks at the likelihood of conviction; the policeman looks at the crime. You put it together, you get a case." Timothy J. Murray, who oversees the agency's day-to-day courthouse operations, agreed with Beaudin: "It's a factory. Any low-level urban court has to be."

Every day the system has to process 50 to 80 cases. The process begins with an arrest. The next stop is the police precinct station, said Daniel Welsh, research director for Pretrial Services: "You're... held there, generally handcuffed to a chair while the officer talks to you. You get your one phone call.You're charged, put in a van, and taken down to CCB" -- Central Cellblock, the 48 cells in the basement of police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, adjacent to the courthouses. "This is where you're finger-printed and booked.

"At about 6 in the morning," continued Welsh, "they give you a baloney sandwich and an orange for breakfast. They put you in a bus and drive you to Superior Court, where you're frisked again, probably for the third or fourth time. Then they put you in a big zoo-type cell" -- in courthouse parlance, the "lockup."

The arresting officer, meanwhile, goes to the U.S. attorney's office to "paper" the case -- that is, to fill out an offense report, a supplement report, an arrest report and a prosecution report. Second District Detective Martin L. Pfeifer, who was doing paperwork at 9 a.m. this Saturday, said it usually takes about three hours, but that a complicated case involving an unusual amount of evidence "can take you a whole tour of duty." Some police officers complain that the U.S. attorneys "don't want to see" certain kinds of cases, such as assaulting a police officer. But, says Pfeifer, the U.S. attorneys "have different problems than we do.... Our standard is probable cause [that a person may have committed a specific crime]. They have to look at prosecuting it in court."

By 2:15 p.m., a half hour before the courtroom closed, more than 40 cases had been processed. It was a typical day: one five-day hold, one fugitive sent back to Virginia, six "no papers," 11 bonds, and the rest (more than 20) personal recognizance with conditions.

There are now more than 5,500 persons on the streets waiting to be brought to trial, according to Beaudin. Some of them will wind up in jail. Of the 20,000 persons who came through the system last year, about 3,000 were finally convicted of a felony, and about 5,000 of a misdemeanor. But Welsh estimates that only about 2,000 of those 8,000 convicted of felonies and misdemeanors will spend time behind bars.

Does the system work? It depends on whom it is working for. Defense attorneys generally seem happy with it. For example, attorney Donald Schutz, a Laramie, Wyo., native who graduated from the Antioch School of Law in the District, said "it's a question of balancing the interest of society and of the client. Generally, the court does that. It works out pretty well."

Courthouse employes are more pessimistic. Wendell Jenkins, a court clerk with 10 years of arraignment experience [who played the role of arraignment court clerk in the movie "All the President's Men"] described the system as a "merry-go-round."

Simarily, Murray, who came to the Pretrial Services Agency from a stint in Vietnam as an interrogator for the Marines, said his job is continually frustrating: "It's hard to know that nothing you do inside these walls changes anything out there." Murray holds little hope for improvement of the system. "There isn't a big gaping hole that you can grab and fix and make justice in the District," he said. "There are just an awful lot of folks out there getting arrested."

But it is the police who seem most unhappy with the way justice is done in the District. Down in Central Cellblock, the mood is bitter.

"In this city," said Officer Elton Kirby, "crime do pay. I see the Redskins in black and white; down in Lorton, they see it in color." Another officer simply described the criminal justice system with an obscenity. And not one of the four policemen listening to him said anything to disagree.