NO FEAR," Eric Andell intones to the wretched-looking youth gazing up at him. "Or is it, 'NO FEAR, DEAR?'"
Andell is trying to decipher the message obscured in the folds of the teenager's T-shirt. The young defendant's casual look isn't unusual, since no one much dresses up for Andell's new reality-based TV show, Juvenile Justice -- no one except Andell, an authentic, robed judge whose relentless enthusiasm and incessant banter suggest a man who knows no fear of a television camera.
When the squirming teen resurfaces some days later without having returned to school, Andell's tanned features grow satisfyingly grim. "If he's not enrolled in a school by this afternoon," he warns the youth's mother, "he goes to jail. You too."
And with that, the teenager's 15 minutes of national television exposure are over. It's time for a commercial break, then on to the next segment of Juvenile Justice.
So what is Eric Andell, a top-ranked jurist and honored children's advocate, doing in the sometimes-tawdry world of syndicated television, on a show being brought to you soon by the same production company that gave the world Top Cops? Andell insists there's a noble, high-minded purpose to the venture: he envisions Juvenile Justice as a vehicle to enlighten Americans on one of their most pressing social problems.
It was Steve Herzberg -- a University of Wisconsin law professor and free-lance television producer -- who proposed the show to Andell in 1993, after meeting the Houston judge at a dinner. "I finally thought I had a forum to tell my story," says Andell, neatly summing his twin passions for activism and ego. "I personally think there's a misconception as to what goes on in juvenile court -- that nothing happens, or that kids are faceless, nameless beings that have no place in our society. Those who are haranguing about the juvenile court have never seen it in process."
Now they can. Starting January 23, Andell will dispense his verdicts and wisdom each weeknight at 6:30 on Channel 39 and on stations in 39 other markets across the country. On paper, the prospects for Juvenile Justice might seem unappetizing: 30 quick minutes of weeping parents, wayward offspring and a manic, confrontational judge who tells one truant claiming to be college-bound, "Where do you want to go, Oxford?... When I saw you, that's just what I said, Oxford." But the show does exert a certain fascination, and it's not just with Andell, a made-for-TV judge if there ever was one.
Contrary to the impression left by the off-the-cuff atmosphere of Juvenile Justice, Andell thoroughly researches the cases and crafts his sentences carefully. And far from calling the show lurid or unsympathetic, Andell's fiercest critics actually say it isn't sufficiently tough.
To some degree, they're right. No People's Court pantomime, Juvenile Justice is filmed live, with many attendant limitations. One of those stems from Andell's day job as a justice on the Houston-based state 1st Court of Appeals. Andell, who previously was a Harris County juvenile judge for seven years, must borrow other judges' dockets to hear two mornings of juvenile cases a week, expressly to film Juvenile Justice, and he must commute to Austin to do so.
He says the TV court time is strictly extracurricular from his full-time job as an appellate judge. Since appellate justices hear cases only one day a week, Andell, who is divorced and has two children off at college, says he can set his own hours; Juvenile Justice, he says, robs no time from his elected duties.
Another limitation is the kind of cases that can be meaningfully portrayed in 15-minute segments. "This show is made up of kids whose cases are (rescheduled) or stipulated -- that is, they say, 'Yes I did it,'" Andell explains. "The reason is that these are the cases that move very quickly."
And don't expect to find youthful defendants accused of capital murder or car-jackings, the kind of juvenile crimes that most appall the public, on Juvenile Justice. Those alleged perpetrators are usually "certified" to stand trial as adults. Instead, the youths who wind up on Juvenile Justice are a motley bunch of smalltimers: car-thieves, pot-smokers and illegal gun wielders. Every minor who appears on the show has given written consent to be filmed and shown, as have his or her family members and even the lawyers in the cases.
"Why would people consent to this? I've asked myself that," admits Andell. "We live in the age of Oprah Winfrey."
Unlike Oprah, though, Andell won't be getting rich off syndicated television. He says he earns nothing for his role, other than final edit rights over the program for himself and producer Herzberg.
The pilots for the show (which were filmed in Harris County) first aired for two weeks in August, and Juvenile Justice earned uncommonly good ratings in Houston, despite its original 11 p.m. viewing time here. The pilot episodes, and Andell, also received good notices from out-of-town critics. Still, not everyone in Andell's hometown loves Juvenile Justice. Lawyers at the Harris County District Attorney's office, which officially frowns on courtroom filming, have been instructed not to participate in the show. The freeze out, in fact, is what ultimately drove Juvenile Justice to Austin.
"We don't want it filmed in Harris County," explains Elizabeth Godwin, chief of the D.A.'s juvenile division. "Televising actual proceedings affects the quality of justice. The lawyers, juries and witnesses begin to play to the camera. It's an element that does not need to be there."
Andell agrees that there are legitimate concerns about allowing cameras into courts, but he defends Juvenile Justice by noting that the apparently swift resolutions of cases are actually the product of considerable off-camera research and dialogue. And while his own on-camera persona seems perilously close to going over the top at times, Andell says he hasn't felt "pressure to be entertaining." He's queried colleagues, he says, and they've told him he doesn't appear to be playing to the camera.
And a surprising number of his colleagues are indeed intrigued, even delighted, by Andell's show. Their admiration, in part, stems from Andell's reputation as high-spirited but dead serious in his work. "I think his intentions are the best. The best," says fellow Democrat Alice Oliver Parrott, the chief justice of the 1st Court of Appeals. "He's an excellent judge. I think he has a genuine feeling for these people."
Ramona Johns, the juvenile judge who loaned Andell her courtroom for the pilots, is another fervent believer in the show's merits. "He's letting people know what goes on in juvenile court," says Johns, who lost her bench in the November election. "I think people are going to watch it because they're interested in juvenile crime, because Eric is a fantastic guy, and they'll watch it for information."
To one Houston judge who asked for anonymity, though, the selection of defendants -- and Andell's jovial on-screen dialogue with them -- makes Juvenile Justice a mockery.
"I think the program is idiotic," the judge says. "For one thing, the only thing they ever dealt with were minor cases -- you don't see kids charged with murder, or sexual assault. Secondly, it's a discredited approach to juvenile justice that we need to get away from: touchy-feely, 'the judge needs to intervene, these are really just good kids.' It's Andell's own liberal view of state interventionism, the social work approach to juvenile justice."
Andell would mostly agree, although he hardly thinks his style is discredited. Instead, he says, he offers an accessible male authority figure and last-ditch options besides a career in the penal system. "What's the alternative -- to yell and scream at these kids?" he says. "Juvenile court proceedings are unique in and of themselves. They require a balance of protection for society and also rehabilitation for the minor. The Texas family code clearly puts a balance in there."
In truth, touchy-feely is not the most apt description for the hurtling, sometimes unsettling dramas Juvenile Justice documents. Instead, Andell prods and badgers, sometimes sounding alarmingly glib as he barrels on. "What do you think? Would you feel threatened?" Andell goads a 16-year-old accused of aggravated assault. Inches from Andell's gavel, Vanshaun Xavier Scott has tried lamely to argue he entered a store with a gun only to defend himself from the shopkeeper.
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Suddenly Vanshaun's grandmother bursts out, "He's lying! I hate liars!" Shaking violently in her distress, the woman adds, "This boy is going with a girl in apartment 400. She wears a nose ring. That gun belongs to her. Why are you covering? Why don't you tell him the truth?... I had him picked up," she wails to Andell. "He told me this year would be his year to make me suffer."
Hoping to level things out a bit, Andell wryly observes, "You have not come to praise Caesar, but to bury him." But the scene's momentum has outpaced him, whirling now between the distraught grandmother and the round-faced young punk her pet has become. "I just want him back like he was," she pleads, urging Andell to lock the youth up. "He needs the smoke taken off his brain."
Such is the real impact of Juvenile Justice: despite the show's mod opening music and goofy shots of Andell waving a huge gavel, it's the desperate young faces and the family torments burning through each quarter-hour segment that stick with the viewer. While Andell's performance has its own considerable entertainment value, far more gripping are the distraught families -- a parade of female caregivers and out-of-control adolescents linked only by thin threads of biology. Andell doesn't fool himself that many of these youths will be saved.
Nevertheless, he argues, Juvenile Justice is his one bully pulpit for pushing dialogue, mentoring and investment in education before it's too late. "We have a small window of opportunity in the juvenile court system, ages ten to 16," Andell says. "Humpty Dumpty comes to us shattered, and we have very little time to try to put him together again.