Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011

Check out the latest issue of The Cardinal Principle: Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011. Spring 2011

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Debate Denied at Stanford: How Liberal Hegemony Keeps Conservatives Quiet

By Gregory Hirshman

As an elite university home to some of the best and brightest young minds in the country, Stanford should be an ideal place to foster intellectual and political discourse and should encourage students to challenge one another’s views on a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, its atmosphere is often hostile to the free expression of conservative views and restricts debate on many issues.

Although conservative views on issues like taxation may be expressed without fear of intimidation, conservative students will often not speak out on other topics, especially those dealing with race or sexual orientation. Students who are against affirmative action risk being labeled “racists.” Students who oppose gay marriage may be called “bigots.” Students who argue in favor of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” may be branded “homophobes.” As a result, even conservatives who are normally outspoken and enjoy debate fear speaking openly about issues such as race and sexual orientation. Most conservatives prefer to remain silent rather than risk being ostracized. When a conservative chooses to say something that is “politically incorrect,” he lowers his voice, so that no one can overhear the conversation. He also makes certain that the person to whom he is speaking is a conservative, or at least a liberal who is tolerant of opposing viewpoints whom he trusts will not expose his ideas to more narrow-minded colleagues.

Even after four years at Stanford, I continue to be amazed to see how self-conscious conservatives are when making politically unpopular remarks. They confront a politically stifling conformity of opinion, and they feel that they risk social isolation, or, in some cases, even discrimination in grading if their true opinions become widely known. At a university which prides itself on tolerance and diversity, this is highly ironic. Like liberals, conservatives deserve to be regarded as people of good will who hold political opinions worthy of discussion and analysis, and not to be dismissed immediately as bigots who wish to reestablish racism, homophobia, or other forms of intolerance. Instead of suppressing the expression of conservative viewpoints, liberals should adhere to the traditional definition of a liberal individual, someone who is “not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.” They should welcome the opportunity to discuss issues with conservative students. As the great “liberal” social theorist John Stuart Mill once said, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

One major reason why conservative students feel intimidated at Stanford is that the faculty and administration are so overwhelmingly left of center. According to an article by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western published in Academic Questions in 2005, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among the Stanford faculty is 7.6 to 1. Among the faculty in the humanities and social sciences, where political orientation of the professors is particularly relevant, this ratio is 14.4 to 1. Many faculty members bring their political and social views directly into the classroom. In the environment they create, conservatism is not regarded as an ideology which proposes an alternative view of the ideal society and of the proper means to achieve it, but rather as a bigoted dogma whose purpose is to frustrate the goals of the enlightened.

As a freshman in an IHUM course at Stanford, I witnessed the way in which the leftward tilt of the professorship can affect academic debates on campus. While, for example, the winter issue of this newspaper presented a debate containing one article praising IHUM and another contending that Stanford should eliminate it, the debate I witnessed in my class presented only a clash between two liberal viewpoints. Debating the issue of whether gays should be allowed to marry, one professor presented the standard liberal defense of gay marriage, arguing that true equality demands that each citizen has the right to marry whomever he or she chooses regardless of sexual orientation. The second merely responded by saying that activists should not advocate gay marriage because doing so would stimulate the conservative Republican base and impede broader social progress. This professor did not advance any conservative argument against gay marriage. Having listened to this kind of debate, conservative students might conclude that they should be reluctant to argue vigorously against legalizing gay marriage for religious reasons or because they believe that legalizing gay marriage would damage the traditional family. Many conservatives suspected that their grades could suffer if they openly advocated such opinions. My subsequent experience at Stanford has demonstrated such situations are not uncommon.

Perhaps the clearest and most dramatic indication of the way that conservatives are intimidated on this campus is the fact that five conservative writers for this newspaper, The Cardinal Principle, have chosen to publish only under pseudonym. This is more than 20% of the conservative staff. No liberal author has ever made such a request. The conservative writers told me they did not want to have their names attached to their articles for two reasons. First, they feared that their professors and/or TAs would learn of their conservative leanings and that this would negatively affect their grades, although their articles had no direct relation to their class material. Second, some did not want the broader Stanford community to know that they had conservative views for fear of social isolation and ostracism. This is completely contrary to the motto of Stanford University, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” which is German for “The wind of freedom blows.” Sadly, the winds of freedom have ceased to blow for those student authors. This should not be tolerated. Students should have the opportunity to express their political and intellectual viewpoints freely and openly, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, unless they seek to harass, insult, or harm others.

In a small way, I have sought to counteract this stifling atmosphere by founding and editing The Cardinal Principle, a paper whose mission is to print well-written and respectful articles from any political viewpoint in order to stimulate debate on campus. Being a firm believer in John Stuart Mill’s statement that “he who only knows his side of the case knows little of that,” I believe that the best way to promote education, tolerance, and understanding is to create an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable making his or her voice heard. Until Stanford ceases to create an atmosphere which limits the expression of conservative views on campus, it will restrict debate and deprive its students’ access to a “liberal education” in the noblest sense of that phrase.

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Freedom of Expression for All: Why Stanford is Fertile Ground for Debate

By Nicole Gibbs

Stanford is unquestionably marked by a largely liberal student and professor population. However, contrary to Mr. Hirshman’s assertions, students with conservative viewpoints on campus are neither condemned nor silenced. Those conservatives who claim that their political opinions are unwelcome at Stanford are simply unprepared to foster a minority opinion and are overly sensitive to the implications of their deviations from the majority.

Although the politically conservative are clearly outnumbered, I fail to see the hostility that Mr. Hirshman claims that liberals exhibit toward conservatives on campus. Conservative students are free to express their opinions on all topics ranging from the tax system to affirmative action to gay marriage in informal debate and, when appropriate, in the classroom. Admittedly, subjects on the social end of the spectrum are often more sensitive because of their current prevalence in the media and the personal implications of these issues, and in the heat of a political debate, proponents of either end of the political spectrum are liable to over-identify with their opinion and take personal offense to opposition. At a venue like Stanford, where one party significantly surpasses the other in number, an advocate of the minority opinion will inevitably feel cornered and intimidated by his adversaries. But this is absolutely not a commentary on the prevention of freedom of speech, but rather a reflection of the demographic at Stanford.

College students in America represent a highly liberal sector of the population to begin with, and Stanford’s location, in Northern California, makes this statistic even more dramatic. Given the topic of gay marriage, the regional opinion is clearly in favor of legalization, and the student population mirrors this common liberal standpoint. A conservative student arguing, without any reasonable justification, that gay marriage is an abomination might easily be met with angry responses and perhaps the hostility that Mr. Hirshman refers to in his argument. But a student who voices this same opinion, backing it up with clear ethical justifications, void of prejudices, will rarely be subjected to this same judgment. Sadly, there will always be some narrow-minded liberals who reject any and all opposition to their views and who will likely make hasty judgments, but the same can be said of narrow-minded conservatives. Politics is invariably a difficult and emotional subject, and while I feel that students with such shallow and judgmental interpretations of the field are few and far between at Stanford, I do concede that, unfortunately, some do exist. But perhaps, then, we should be asking how can Stanford help create tolerance among the narrow-minded rather than jumping to unfounded and paranoid conclusions about the political majority’s oppression of its opposition on campus.

Mr. Hirshman goes on to complain that conservative students feel that their grades will be negatively impacted if their political views become public–an irrational and unjustified paranoia. There is no evidence to confirm that students with conservative views are graded more harshly than their liberal counterparts, regardless of the largely liberal teaching staff. What Mr. Hirshman fails to acknowledge in his argument is that the liberal-to-conservative professor ratios he cites are not radically out of the ordinary. According to one source, over three-fourths of collegiate professors in America identify with the liberal political party, and this percentage increases to eighty-one percent among professors in the humanities. He also fails to mention that perhaps the best-known and most highly acclaimed professor of political science on campus, Condoleeza Rice, is distinctly right wing. In this case, again, I fail to see any particular biases against the conservative party with respect to students or professors on the part of the university.

Moving forward, the claim that there is a lack of healthy debate forums in which conservatives and liberals alike may express political opinions is one of the most absurd assertions Mr. Hirshman makes. Stanford is an absolute breeding ground for debate, with popular topics ranging from religion to prevalent social issues to politics. Stanford is teeming with students eager to learn more about others and their differing views in order to fully establish their own opinions. Rather than citing The Cardinal Principle as the shining exception within a cruel and hostile environment, I believe the existence and success of such a newspaper to be a testament to the willingness of the student body to explore all sides of an argument and weigh the merits of each perspective. If, as Mr. Hirshman claims, liberals on campus are keen on shutting out and debasing all evidence contrary to their beliefs, such a newspaper would be the source of mockery. Instead, students value the paper because they see that certain opinions are under-represented on campus, and they wish to explore the justifications for the opposing arguments.

Finally, Mr. Hirshman takes a vast amount of liberty in his presentation of the term “liberal” in his argument. Stanford does take pride in its liberal approach to education, but this concept of contemplative and diverse learning does not inhibit one’s freedom in choosing political affiliation, nor does the existence of a political majority on campus warrant the accusation that this liberal approach is not honored. In fact, access to a liberal education explicitly provides the resources necessary to deviate from popular opinion. There is no shortage of resources on campus for students wishing to cultivate their budding perspectives on the world, however different or unpopular, spanning from clubs to student-staff mentor programs. The responsibility, then, lies with the individual student who will either take advantage of these resources or fail to do so, rather than with the university which is constantly creating opportunities for personal development.

The disparity between the sizes of the liberal and conservative parties on campus is the result of Stanford’s demographic rather than a university-wide conspiracy to cease the winds of freedom. While, understandably, conservatives often feel frustrated by the lack of support they have among their peers, whining about the alleged implications is childish and naive. Welcome to the real world: not everyone you meet will share your views and oftentimes, depending on where you are or with whom you surround yourself, your opinions may be unpopular. If perceived as a challenge, Stanford can provide an incredible resource for growth among conservatives who thoughtfully and respectfully seek to represent and expand their opinions. If regarded as an unfair and biased environment, Stanford can become a handicap to conservatives’ healthy expression of beliefs. Again, the responsibility is that of the individual, who will frame the experience either as a distinct opportunity or as an impediment to personal growth.

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An Interview with Condoleezza Rice

By Gregory Hirshman

About Condoleezza Rice:

Condoleezza Rice is a well-known political scientist and diplomat. She served as the 66th United States Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. She was the first African American woman to hold that office. Rice served as National Security Advisor during Bush’s first term and was the first woman to hold that position.Before joining the Bush administration, she was a political science professor and a provost at Stanford University. She also served in the George H. W. Bush administration as the Soviet and East European Affairs Advisor for the National Security Council during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In March 2009, she returned to Stanford. She currently teaches political science and is the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

1. What was the most important lesson you learned during your time as Secretary of State?

Well, I had been in a lot of positions of authority and a manager throughout my career, but I think the most important lesson that I learned is to try and make sure that you have good antennae about what is going on in your organization and to try and get people to bring you news or problems when they are still solvable rather than having them sprung on you late in the game. And I think that is something that every manager learns, that you can’t be surprised. You can fix almost any problem, but surprise is the real problem.

2. Why did you choose to come back to Stanford after serving as Secretary of State?

I have always assumed I would come back to Stanford. It was not really a decision. I just always assumed I would come back. I am a university person. I love being a professor. I always said that it was a kind of detour to go and be a government official. I’m really a university professor at heart, an academic at heart. And I have been at Stanford now for thirty years, which is a really long time, so it was never even a question that I would be coming back here and go back to teaching and doing research and being involved again in the life and the mind of one of the greatest universities on earth.

3. Do you find your time now as a private citizen more or less enjoyable than your time in government?

Well, they are just very different. When you are a government official, when you are Secretary of State, every waking moment is really about your work and about your job. You try to get away. You try to go to a Kennedy Center concert. You try to go see friends for dinner, but it is ever present. There is no such thing as personal time when you are in those positions, and you feel the stress. You try not to, and you try to put it in the back of your mind to keep functioning. As a university professor, there are moments when I am really on, when I am teaching, when I am doing my book, and so forth, but when I go to the basketball game, I am at the basketball game, and it is very different being in those high-powered government jobs.

4. Do you ever hope to serve again as a public official in the future?

I do not know what you would do after you were Secretary of State. It is sort of the best job in government as George Schultz once put. I cannot really see what I would do again.

5. Switching gears, do you believe that Stanford does a good job in promoting ideological diversity on campus?

Well, I do not think it is up to Stanford to promote ideological diversity. Universities are very decentralized places, and I think it is really the responsibility of the university to hire the best faculty in their fields, and then I think it is up to those faculty to give equal weight to different views and political, ideological, historical, whatever you want to call them, views. I think that is really the responsibility of the faculty.

6. What do you think that The Cardinal Principle adds to the Stanford experience by focusing on promoting ideological diversity?

Oh certainly there’s room for improvement, and I do not mean to say that faculty do not have ideological positions, but for instance, in the course that I just taught, I assigned books that were very critical of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and I think that is an obligation because this is supposed to be a place of debate. And I always say to my students if you ever find yourself constantly in the company of those who are saying amen to everything you say, then find other company, and I would say the same thing to faculty.

7. Do you believe that if there were more forums like The Cardinal Principle that there would be less partisan bickering and more genuine debate?

Well, as I understand it, what you try to do is you try to show the breadth of ideological, political, and philosophical thought at Stanford and to make certain that the students are exposed to voices from different parts of those spectrums, and I think that is a very useful thing to do particularly for a student-led publication.

Well there might be partisan bickering anyway. We’ve had partisan bickering in the United States since its founding, but I do think that opportunities for people to speak to issues from different perspectives, political, ideological, and philosophical, in a civilized way is healthy for Stanford and healthy for democracy, and so any effort to make sure people are engaging in a whole range of ideas is very much worth it. And yes, I think our politics would be well served by it.

8. What do you think that other students who are interested in promoting ideological diversity should do to encourage civil political discourse and genuine dialogue at their schools or universities?

Well I think that the students should insist on hearing a variety of views and then taking those views seriously. It is very easy to drown out views that you don’t want to hear, particularly in the age of the internet where you can get on the internet and sort of choose to go to websites that support your own point of view. That is a sure recipe for lacking creativity in your thinking. It is a sure recipe for suddenly being shocked when you do not debate your own position well because you have never actually debated someone before, and it is a sure recipe for being less effective when you go out into the larger world, and so I think that students have to insist on being able to hear a range of views, and then they have to hear them. If you do not think in the classroom you are hearing a range of views, you should bring it up, not in a confrontational way, but talk to the faculty member about it.

If you feel you are in a setting with other students where other views are not being heard, then insist that other views be heard. The university, more than any place, ought to be open to a range of views because it is the only way you hone arguments. It is the only way you test your views and your positions. I would hate to think the first time you heard a compelling argument against what you think would be after you left college. That’s not a very good place to be.

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An Interview with Steve Westly

By Sam Ecker

About Steve Westly:

Steve Westly is a well-known venture capitalist, politician, and Stanford alumnus. He served as the State Controller of California from 2003 to 2007, nearly won the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 2006, and served as the California Campaign Co-Chair for Obama for America in the 2008 presidential election. He was one of eBay’s earliest executives and retired from the company in 2000 as a senior vice president. He is currently a managing partner of The Westly Group, one of the largest clean technology venture capital firms in the country. Westly graduated from Stanford University in 1978 with a B.A. in History and received an M.B.A in Public Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1983.

1. While you are now a well-established, highly successful venture capitalist and prominent political figure, you were also once a Stanford undergraduate. How would you characterize your career path and what were the most important steps for you along the way?

First, I think going to Stanford is one of the best decisions I made in my life. I was not a particular stand out in high school and was very lucky just to get in. To keep up, I learned to be very disciplined, and this trait has served me very well throughout my life. I had also never run for student office or served in any leadership position in high school. At Stanford I became very active in the anti-Apartheid movement and was later elected ASSU Co-President. I’m sure I was a thorn in the side of the University, but I learned that to change the world sometimes, you can’t take “no” for an answer.

2. Not only were you a Stanford undergraduate, but you also graduated from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and later taught there for five years. How was your experience as a graduate student different from life as an undergraduate, and what skills were you able to further develop?

Graduate school was completely different. It is much more intense, much more rigorous, and was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The best courses I took at the GSB were not in business–they were in negotiations, interpersonal dynamics, creativity and leadership. The GSB has done a great job of developing a curriculum in areas that go beyond accounting and finance, but are essential in business and politics.

As much as I enjoyed being a student at the Business School (other than accounting)– teaching there was the single most fun and rewarding thing I have done in my life. The students are exceptional, and the school is the best in the world.
3. As a former California State Controller and gubernatorial candidate, in what ways did your experience as ASSU President prepare you for a political career?

Running for office is never easy. It takes a lot of commitment, stamina, and determination. There are very few times in your life when all of your peers vote up or down on you as a person–and that takes a certain amount of courage. Running for office is one of them. If you want to change the world, holding office is one of most powerful ways to do this.

When we worked on the anti-apartheid movement, the president of Stanford and every member of the Board of Trustees told us that we were wrong. The University maintained that the companies the University invested in were actually a positive force in South Africa–even though black citizens there were segregated and denied basic rights, including the right to vote. Many said we were downright irresponsible.

But I learned at Stanford that if you believe in something strongly enough, you have to stand up for it. Great accomplishments don’t happen without a fight. Over two thousand students gathered to close down the university over Stanford’s investment policy in South Africa and 293 were arrested. Frankly, I was scared to death.

When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail and became president of South Africa, he said South Africa would never have been freed from the chains of apartheid had it not been for the international labor and student movements. There are few things I have been prouder of since.

4. You are currently a managing partner of The Westly Group, one of the largest clean technology venture capital firms in the country. What sparked your interest in clean technology, and where do you expect to see the most growth within the sector in the next few years?

When I graduated from Stanford, I went to work for the Department of Energy in the office of Conservation and Solar, so I have been passionate about renewable energy for 30 years. In short, we have been dependent on fossil fuels for too long. This hurts our economy and puts our national security at risk. It’s also changing the climate of the planet and is affecting our environment. The Harvard Health Project did a recent study that estimates 83 million people will die from lung related diseases in China between 2003 and 2033 because of their pollution problems. It’s time to change our dependence on oil and coal.

I think there is going to be a revolution in electric cars, solar and wind, and energy efficient buildings. There is also going to be a revolution in recycling. We need to understand that revolution is not always a bad thing. I want America to lead this revolution.

5. You recently attended a state dinner held for Chinese leader Hu Jintao. What was that experience like and how do you see Chinese-U.S. relations developing over the next few years? How do human rights play into Chinese-U.S. relations?

My wife and I were honored to attend the dinner for the president of China. The dinner was actually very small for a state dinner (225 people), but the attendee list was extraordinary. The US-China relationship is the most important in the world. Many issues including trade, the environment, foreign policy, and human rights will dominate our relationship for years to come. It’s important to remember that both nations have more in common than we typically realize. In short, we need more engagement, more students from each country studying in the other country, and more Americans learning Chinese.

6. I am originally from Wisconsin and have been closely following the union fights there. What is your personal stance on the issue, and why do you think President Obama at first seemed to stand behind the unions and then backed off the issue?

Both the state of Wisconsin and the unions need to make concessions to balance the budget. Rather than trying to find a bipartisan solution, I think Governor Walker is using the situation for political gain. Attacking the public employees’ right to collective bargaining is the most polarizing thing the governor could do, at the worst possible time.

7. President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. spending in order to bring order back to the federal deficit. However, he has spent more than any other first-term U.S. President. What role do you see the deficit playing in the 2012 presidential election?

President Obama just submitted a budget that proposes over $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. I give him great credit for this. The President came into office in the midst of the largest recession since the Great Depression. He had little choice but to put forward a significant stimulus plan. He also chose to provide financial support for the auto industry. I think history will judge both actions very favorably. Certainly preserving the manufacturing strength of the nation’s Midwest was an important win for this country.
Having said that, the President and Congress will need to find common ground to cut both entitlements and defense spending. The Republican Congress’ efforts to try to cut discretionary spending like education and basic research and development is a mistake.

8. As you probably know, the mission of The Cardinal Principle is to print well-written and respectful articles from any political viewpoint in order to stimulate debate on campus. Do you believe that having more publications and forums that promote genuine dialogue would help encourage greater bipartisanship and compromise?

Without a doubt. The level of partisanship in Washington and Sacramento is worse than ever, and that hurts all Americans. We need elected officials who are willing to reach across the aisle to find common sense bipartisan solutions.

Posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011 | Leave a comment

Stanford’s Struggle with Pre-Major Advising

By Jamin Ball

Every year Stanford’s incoming class of freshmen possesses a wide variety of talents. In the first week before school during NSO in Memorial Auditorium, students become aware of many of the noble accomplishments of some of their peers. Among my class are Olympic athletes, entrepreneurs, and political advisors. It seemed as if every student contained a specific talent. While these talents are extraordinary, they were no doubt developed through the guidance of older, more experienced teachers or mentors. For my fellow classmates, these mentors have proved priceless and indispensible.

However, once college begins, most students will move away from home and live in a foreign city, far from the proximity of the previous mentors. This can often be a defining time for most students as they begin to live independently and do things more on their own. No longer will they live under the shadow of their parents. Their lives will truly begin to be their own. One of the great aspects of Stanford is that it offers students many different paths on which they can live their new lives. The variety of classes offered is immense compared to that of high school. For many students the list of classes can be very intimidating.

There is a lot of pressure put on Stanford students as soon as school begins to begin taking the correct classes that will lead to future jobs and work. However, a lot of students enter Stanford with only a broad list of interests and no sense of what specific classes will appeal to them. In confusing times like these, students previously turned to their parents or mentor for guidance. Unfortunately, these parents and mentors are often back home, nowhere near school, which forces students to guide their own life. This transition of becoming independent does not need to be sharp, and Stanford provides students with multiple counselors for assistance. However, the advising system at Stanford does not adequately aid students in exploring the vast amount of opportunities available to them at Stanford.

Before students declare their major at Stanford they have a pre-major advisor and an academic advisor. This appears sufficient, yet most students remain unsatisfied with the guidance they receive. The pre-major advisor serves as an excellent, more experienced person to talk with about your time at school, but they offer no guidance when it comes to what classes to enroll in. The pre-major advisor is mainly someone to talk to about any broad potential problems a student may be having. On the other hand, meetings with the academic advisor are rare, and students lack a personal relationship with their advisor. The lack of familiarity between the academic advisors and their students makes it difficult for students to receive specific help with regard to class selection. As freshman Connor Barnett stated, “The current advising system provides students with inadequate guidance, both with regard to specific class selection and important life decisions. It needs to be reformed and should incorporate comprehensive exposure to all of Stanford’s diverse academic offerings, especially given Stanford’s unique emphasis on interdisciplinary education and research.” This sums up the pre-major advising system.

Unfortunately, freshmen are unable to familiarize themselves with the class lists prior to registration, and their advisors are unable to help due to their lack of knowledge about the available classes. The most effective advisor is one who attended Stanford and went through the process of selecting classes. A system should be implemented where students have the opportunity to visit panels from a variety of majors, where a representative from each major is present and available to describe all the classes for the major. However, it’s not necessary for every individual major to have a representative present. It would suffice to have a representative from the most prominent majors in the engineering, math, science, humanities, and social sciences departments. A panel like this could easily be organized during NSO, the week prior to the beginning of classes. This panel would effectively introduce students to prospective classes and majors and set them on the right track to begin their college experience.

Posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011 | Leave a comment

Imprisoning Our State Budgets

By Jimmy Threatt

The United States currently incarcerates approximately 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the prison population of the United States has increased approximately 500% over the last thirty years. While the issue of capital punishment receives a great deal of attention, the massive size of the prison population within the United States is often overlooked. A significant part of the reason why we have such a large prison population is that certain states, like California, have increasingly large numbers of people serving life sentences. Life sentences may seem attractive because they supposedly isolate the most dangerous criminals from society and deter people from committing serious crimes. However, life sentences do not effectively fulfill these goals, and the resulting larger prison populations lead to deteriorating prison conditions and create significant financial burdens for state governments.

The primary reasons for sentencing individuals to life terms are to isolate them from society and to deter others from committing crimes. It has been well documented that as prisoners age, they become much less likely to commit crimes if released from prison. Thus, imprisoning fifty and sixty year old people for crimes they committed in their twenties does little, if anything, to prevent crime because a vast majority of those prisoners would not commit any crime if released into society.

Life sentences are similarly ineffective in deterring other people from committing crimes. There has been a great deal of research concerning the deterrence of capital punishment, and much of it is inconclusive: if there is a deterrent effect, it is fairly small. Based on this evidence, it seems reasonable to suggest that life in prison sentences may similarly lack a strong deterrent effect, raising questions about their effectiveness.

The most significant impact of life sentences is that over time, the prison population tends to increase because more prisoners will be added to the system than are released. This is especially true when, as in some states like California, there is a dramatic increase in the frequency with which people are sentenced to life terms. These enlarged prison populations lead to overcrowded prisons and dramatic increases in prison costs. It is not only that larger prison populations are more expensive, but that life sentences also result in older inmates, which has a significant impact on prison costs due to healthcare related expenses that increase dramatically as prisoners age. For example, in California the Three Strikes Law has increased the prison population to the point where most prisons are overcrowded, the prison conditions are notoriously bad, and the prison system is a significant financial strain on a state that already has a large deficit. In the context of current economic crises, large prison populations created by life sentences pose a more significant problem than in the past.

While life sentences are definitely necessary in some cases, some states, particularly California – where one person was given a life sentence for stealing one dollar in loose change from a parked car – have gone overboard with how frequently they sentence people to life in prison. It is questionable at best whether life sentences effectively serve the goals of isolation and deterrence, and the larger, older prison populations created by such sentences create deteriorating prison conditions and pose a significant financial burden on state governments. Thus, it seems reasonable to question why life sentences are so common, especially in certain states like California. Politics is responsible. State legislators and governors have incentives to appear tough on crime, and, as a result, some states have adopted determinate sentencing schemes, such as California’s Three Strikes Law, which almost always dramatically increase the number of people serving life sentences. Once again, California stands out as the prime example, having both the most infamous determinate sentencing law and a prison system that is notorious for being large, in poor condition, and expensive to maintain.

Posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011 | Leave a comment