The District Court commissioners of Prince George's County remember Popeye as a raggedy old man who often smelled of tobacco and booze. He was a gentle character who hung out for many years near George Palmer Highway in Seat Pleasant, panhandling for wine money, sleeping in trash bins and directing traffic when he felt the urge.

The commissioners remember Popeye because he was a frequent visitor to their branch office in the basement of the Seat Pleasant police station. Whenever he was arrested -- for trespassing or vagrancy or drinking in public -- he'd come rolling into the station as merry as an elf, laughing and singing at the top of his lungs, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, Beep Beep!"

And often the commissioners, whose job it is to issue arrest warrants and determine whether suspects should be released or held on bond, would put him in jail overnight -- not so much to teach him a lesson as to give him a warm place to sleep and a hot meal.

To them Popeye was a welcome relief from the dismal flow of assorted thugs who came to the office each day.

Then one morning a cop came in and said "Guess who died?"

Popeye, the cop said, had stolen a buddy's beer and the buddy had gotten so mad he picked up a can of gasoline, poured it on Popeye, lit a match and burned him to death.

It was, the commissioners say, their saddest hour ever. To this day, several years later, they can't remember Popeye's real name but they still talk about the old man and recall the infectious joy he brought them. "Because in this job, at this time of year," says Commissioner Gwen G. Williams, "you hang on to whatever humor or human kindness happens to roll around."

These are the dog days for the 25 state District Court commissioners of Prince George's County and their 14 colleagues in Montgomery. They work at the front gate of suburban Maryland's justice system and at this time of year that gate is often packed with people bearing tales of tragedy and distress.

With the Christmas season in full swing and the economy still stuck in a recession, the commissioners are supplied with an increasing tide of suspects arrested for crimes of desperation and monetary gain.

"The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the busiest and roughest of all," says Shirley Farmer, chief commissioner for Prince George's. "But this year it seems worse because of the economy. Shoplifting and thefts and bad check cases are all up, but so are the assaults and batteries, the domestic fights.

"No work, husbands are home, bills aren't paid," she says. "Eventually it seems they all end up here at this window. They cry, they plead, they spit and take a swing at you. You can be sure no one comes here to ask how to get to Acapulco."

The commissioners work in the concrete bowels of police substations at five locations in Prince George's County and three in Montgomery, logging citizen complaints, making sure suspects understand their rights, and deciding whether suspects should be jailed on bond or freed on personal recognizance.

These are lay people who are hired at an annual salary of $12,000 with no legal training other than that which they get on the job. In Prince George's County they include former waitresses and secretaries, a retired Air National Guard accident investigator, a court clerk and recent college graduates -- all of them guided on the job by facts and circumstances and what Chief District Court Judge Graydon McKee III calls, "good common sense."

Their office is open 24 hours a day and nowadays the work is tough.

It's a time when hallways outside their offices are filled more and more with distraught families seeking to bail relatives out of jail. A 43-year-old woman with a purple welt on her forehead arrives at the Upper Marlboro office to swear out a warrant for her unemployed husband's arrest. A 20-year-old woman, tears streaming down her cheeks, is arrested and held on $300 bond in Hyattsville for shoplifitng a half-dozen wristwatches -- gifts, she says, for her family.

In short, it's a time of year when irrepressible souls like Popeye are sorely missed.

In Prince George's County it's a banner year for crime. County commissioners have so far processed 20,143 new criminal cases, up nearly 7,000 since 1978. Last year 14,685 new criminal cases were introduced in Montgomery County, up 3,000 from the year before. This year, Montgomery commissioners say, new criminal cases are pouring in at an average of 1,200 a month. Statewide officials expect to log a total of more than 100,000 by the end of the year.

Nearly every adult arrested in Maryland goes before a District Court commissioner, the first judicial officer a suspect meets. The commissioner introduces the suspect to the court system and starts the legal jacket of charges and appearance reports that eventually ends up in Circuit and District court files.

There are 150 commissioners working statewide in a job that has existed only since 1971. In that year the state District Court system was created as a way to unify a lower court hodgepodge of committee magistrates and peoples courts that had existed previously in Maryland counties.

Maryland is one of a diminishing number of states that employ people untrained in law to serve as judicial officers responsible for issuing charging documents and determining conditions of pretrial release. "Lawyers have simply taken over the profession," says Norval Morris, a University of Chicago law professor who has written extensively about criminal justice.

Morris says lawyers are increasingly demanded because legal issues have become so complex in recent years. Still, he says, systems such as Maryland's are generally a "jolly good thing, because there's no better guide than good common sense."

Adds Prince George's Commissioner Arthur Meloy, "Just because somebody can hang a lawyer's shingle on his door doesn't mean he has a gram of good judgment."

(Last month the District of Columbia hired three hearing commissioners to perform functions similar to those of Maryland's commissioners. All three of them are attorneys and members of the D.C. Bar; their annual salary is $48,169.)

Maryland commissioners are appointed to their posts by chief judges of county District courts. Applicants must be 21 years old and reside in the county in which they work. A college degree is preferred along with, according to the commissioners' work manual, "an even disposition and an ability to calm others who, at the time of their appearance before a commissioner, may be in a state of anger, excitement or distress."

At 2:30 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday, Commissioners Williams, Farmer and Meloy have hit a lull in the Upper Marlboro office after several hours of work in which they have handled 16 cases that included a woman who complained that her ex-husband had tried to run her car off the beltway with his car -- ("He's an FBI agent. Got laid off," she says.) -- three young people picked up for shoplifting, and a pouting 18-year-old arrested for stealing two beagles from a pet store.

The only indications that Christmas Day is close are a green wall wreath and a tiny ceramic Christmas tree atop a desk beneath a plastic fly swatter. In the hallway five different families, having already posted bond, wait with howling children for relatives and friends to be released from the county jail.

"There's so much about this job that can get you down you have to laugh to stop from going crazy," Meloy says.

He and the others talk about the characters they have met at the front gate, such as a disturbed old man known as Mr. Gribble who was arrested several times for trespassing. During each bond hearing he would shout and scream, protesting that his name was Gen. Robert E. Lee, not Gribble. From that point on the commissioners addressed him as Mr. Lee or Gen. Lee and he was perfectly coherent.

There was the old woman who wandered up to the window complaining about her television set. She said it was emitting electronic particles from space that were disturbing her brain. Meloy said he listened very patiently to her, then came up with a solution. Wrap the TV with aluminum foil, Meloy said, so the beams can be reflected back to where they came from. The woman smiled, thanked him and departed.

And there was the man who was arrested in Clinton several weeks ago after he was caught traipsing through a series of front yards, naked and waving a samurai sword over his head. Although the offense, trespassing, was a minor one, the commissioner on duty levied a hefty bond on the suspect so that he could be detained overnight pending a judge's review the next day, at which time the judge sent the suspect away for a mental evaluation.

The commissioners at the front gate work as ministers, marriage counselors and amateur pyschologists, sometimes all at once. But mostly they use a rudimentary understanding of law to do what they think is just. "Judges disagree about what justice is and so do juries," Meloy says. "Depending on which commissioner you come to for a bond hearing in Maryland you might have a variety of decisions."

Indeed, Meloy, 32, a brown-haired former court clerk, says he is jokingly referred to by policemen as "PR" because of his propensity in some misdemeanor cases to release suspects on personal recognizance. He has also been known to question the validity of some arrests and to refuse to issue charging documents.

Consider the case of the drunken man found slumped in the passenger seat of a parked car by a rookie cop. The cop arrested him for drunken driving, but Meloy refused to accept the case. "He didn't even start the car. You jumped the gun," he told the cop, before releasing the man.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Simpson, a Hyattsville commissioner and former Florida policeman. D.C. residents charged with misdemeanor offenses who come before Simpson can be sure they won't be freed without bond. "I've found that 70 percent of the time D.C. suspects simply don't show for trial," he says.

But most of the commissioners seem to fall somewhere in between. Gwen Williams has slapped bonds as high as $150,000 for an accused murderer and as low as $36 for a middle-aged Capitol Heights woman who vandalized the home of her estranged husband. "She'd never been arrested and lived in Prince George's all her life," Williams says. "I just asked her how much money she had on her and set that as bond. Why hold someone like that when you don't have to?"

Sometimes, however, mistakes are made. Several years ago an elderly man was brought before Williams after being arrested for beating his wife. Williams said the man wept, told her he was frustrated, out of work, had bills to be paid and was sorry he took it out on his family.

The commissioner told him she would help him get in touch with social service agencies the next day. Then she released him on personal recognizance. A half-hour later, she said, the police returned him to her office. They said he had just shot his wife to death.

"I don't think I've ever really gotten over that one," she says.

But most of the time, especially during the dog days, human sympathy seems to help more than it hurts. Several weeks ago a man was arrested for shoplifting two packages of hot dogs from a county supermarket. He'd never been arrested before, and during the suspect's bond hearing Williams discovered the man was unemployed, married and had two young children.

"He needed the food," she says, "and you could just see the sense of pride the man had and how humiliated he felt to be here." Williams freed him on personal recognizance and then took up a collection around the office. She got $20, handed it to the man and told him to get something to eat.

Commissioner Roger McDaniel, 26, whose wife is in college and several months pregnant with their first child, is finding it difficult to adjust on his $12,000 Maryland commissioner's salary. "I like the work. It's exciting. I'm more or less my own boss. But the money is ridiculous," he says. Thus McDaniel, Simpson and other commissioners say they are thinking of pursuing other careers if the state legislature does not soon approve a salary increase.

Farmer and Williams, however, are fairly certain they'll stay on. In 1972 Farmer, now the chief commissioner, was the first black woman to be hired as a commissioner. Then 22 years old, she was at first shocked by the rough language and scents of urine and booze attendant to the job. "And the county was much less racially tolerant than now," she says, remembering the time a white suspect came before her and started shouting in her face: "What do I have to do to leave here? You want me to get down on my knees and sing 'Mammy'?"

Williams, meantime, has had to contend with suspects after working hours. Once someone sprayed Mace through the vent of her car. Another time she entered a restaurant only to bump into an accused burglar whom she had placed on $5,000 bond several years before. The man shouted at her and called her a few names, prompting her to flee the eatery rather hastily.

"It's just part of the game," Farmer explains. "After a while you get addicted to this job, the drama and the people. You take the good with the bad."

Gradually, as the commissioners talked, a line began forming in the dim hallway outside their office in the basement of the Upper Marlboro courthouse. Two handcuffed men charged with armed robbery were at the head of the line, accompanied by a stocky county cop. Behind them were several children and three women who came to bail a friend out of jail. Behind them was an angry middle-aged man who wanted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of a youth he claimed assaulted him at Bowie State College and stole his watch.

One by one the commissioners took turns at the front of the window. It seemed the tide was in again.