April 15, 2012
"Agency and Equity: Why Do We Blame Clients for Their Lawyers' Mistakes?"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new Foreword in the Michigan Law Review authored by Adam Liptak, which gets started this way:
If you were to ask a child whether it would be fair to execute a prisoner because his lawyer had made a mistake, the answer would be no. You might even get a look suggesting that you had asked a pretty stupid question. But judges treat the issue as a hard one, relying on a theory as casually accepted in criminal justice as it is offensive to principles of moral philosophy.
This theory holds that the lawyer is the client’s agent. What the agent does binds the principal. But clients and lawyers fit the agency model imperfectly. Agency law is built on the concepts of free choice, consent, and loyalty, and it is not unusual to find lawyer-client relationships in which some or all of these elements are missing.
Let us put to one side the ideal case: a sophisticated client with money. That client presumably chooses a good lawyer, monitors and controls the lawyer’s work, and fires her if she turns out to be disloyal or incompetent. The lawyer in that case really is the instrument of her client’s will, and so the client may fairly be tagged with the lawyer’s errors.
Now consider a client who is poor, uneducated, mentally troubled, scared, or imprisoned—or perhaps all of these things at once. And then add to this mix a lawyer who is not retained but a volunteer or assigned by the state. Does it still make sense to consider such a lawyer an authentic agent of the client?
When do the costs of incarcerating the elderly clearly outweigh any benefits?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this commentary from the Tulsa World, which is headlined "A Wow Moment: The aging of Oklahoma's prison population." Here are excerpts:
If the state can prove that [73-year-old Darlene] Mayes is what it claims she is, a marijuana queenpin who supplied 40 percent of the marijuana sales around Grand Lake, there could be other wow moments. Like the wow moment for taxpayers and the Department of Corrections when yet another aging offender — with the equivalent of a life sentence — is added to the more than 5,000 geriatric inmates already in the prison system. These are inmates in varying — and some very costly — stages of declining health.
How useful is sending or keeping some of these older inmates in prison? Does their incarceration deter others in the AARP set from dipping into crime? Does it protect the community, or simply cost it?
Oklahoma has thousands of inmates, of all ages, behind bars serving time for drug offenses. That fact obviously hasn't deterred many others from getting in the business despite the risks. So, if deterrence isn't working, how about risk to the community? Are there alternatives to prison that would protect public safety but not cost taxpayers an arm and a leg in medical costs for an aging inmate?
If there are two categories of people that Oklahoma likes to lock up, it is women and drug offenders. Oklahoma ranks No. 1 nationally in per-capita female incarceration and is fairly high up the ladder in the percentage of drug offenders in prison.
But it is not only the number of drug offenders and female offenders that's grown exponentially in the past few decades. Oklahoma also has had marked growth in the number of older inmates, a population that presents expensive health-care challenges.
In 1980, DOC had only 85 inmates age 50 or older in its entire prison system. By 2010, that figure had grown to 3,952, and by 2013, the population is expected to reach 5,254 - a 48 percent increase. This is not favorable news for the DOC, taxpayers or older inmates.
"Inmates don't come to us in good health to start with," DOC Director Justin Jones told Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock two years ago. "After years of substance abuse, when they get into their mid-50s, they have an array of chronic illness." Several years ago, DOC opened a geriatric facility at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. "We filled it up the day we opened," Jones said of the 273-inmate facility.
In fiscal year 2000, DOC's total inmate health-care costs were about $34 million, which rose to more than $61 million by fiscal year 2010. A disproportionate share of that cost, by necessity, is being spent on care of older inmates.
This aging of the prison population poses tough choices for lawmakers and agency heads grappling with ever tighter budgets and demands to cut spending. A Time magazine article reported that policymakers "must address soaring medical costs for these older inmates and ponder whether some can be safely released before their sentences expire."
That might work for some nonviolent offenders, who could be paroled and use Medicaid or Medicare benefits instead of DOC-supported care. But how well would that play politically?
In many states, which have no choice financially, early-release programs targeted at older, nonviolent inmates are being tried. Compounding the issue, however, is the difficulty of finding nursing homes for aging, recently released felons who have no families and cannot live on their own. Some states are looking at starting long-term care facilities outside prison to care for parolees.