Zakaria: Incarceration nation
March 22nd, 2012
11:13 AM ET

Zakaria: Incarceration nation

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt of Fareed Zakaria's column in this week's TIME Magazine, which you can read in full here, behind a paywall.

By Fareed Zakaria

“Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today,” writes the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America - more than 6 million - than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”

Is this hyperbole? Here are the facts. The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and ­Britain - with a rate among the ­highest - has 153....

This wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.

That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession....

Bipartisan forces have created the trend that we see. Conservatives and liberals love to sound tough on crime, and both sides agreed in the 1990s to a wide range of new federal infractions, many of them carrying mandatory sentences for time in state or federal prison. And as always in American politics, there is the money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.

Partly as a result, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year; a prisoner costs it $45,006 a year.

The results are gruesome at every ­level. We are creating a vast prisoner under­class in this country at huge expense, increasingly unable to function in normal society, all in the name of a war we have already lost....

Read the full article at

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soundoff (134 Responses)
  1. Guard1an

    Would like to read the entire article here at CNN. Nice to see CNN finally making an effort at presenting the facts to the American public that the War on Drugs is a total failure. Of course the statistics don't show the number of innocent people killed as a result of this insanity. Imagine this: You are a father of a 3 year old and are scheduled to have a custody meeting in three days. A police officer in a state that has a Medical Marijuana Law thinks he smells marijuana and notifies Child Protective Services, who in turn obtains a court order to remove the child from you. When CPS along with the police arrive at your house, you put up a fight about the removal of your child and are shot dead in front of your child by the officer. The irony, the toxicology report shows that you are clean, no alcohol, no drugs, no marijuana in your system. The officer isn't charged with a crime, because the officer claimed self defense. My bet: a vast majority of Americans would put up a fight to keep their children from being ripped from their arms. Since I see more than one person providing a link I will too.

    Michigan Father Killed in Marijuana Child Removal Incident

    Prohibition causes more harm than good, but prohibitionists fail to understand that. End the war on drugs. Legalize it.

    March 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  2. surlycurmudgen


    What percentage of the prison population is
    Life without parole
    non violent
    Drug possession

    Now take all non violent put an ankle bracelet on them charge them a fee and send them home where they can go to and from work to home and that’s it. Let a computer monitor their where abouts every five minutes.

    next all non citizens deliver them to law enforcement in their native country. Let their own country pay for their incarceration.

    Now for those with life without parole we find a piece of land five miles on a side no people on that land and put up a triple fence, middle fence electrified, with cameras, motion sensors, vibration sensors. Enough guards to keep the fence under observation with no guards inside the fence. Hand the felon a pack with garden seeds and hand tools for working the soil and put them through the fence where they can take care of them selves. No fly zone above the place with automatic shoot down.

    Then dismantle the war on poverty. That is the biggest single factor among minorities breaking up families and putting young men in prison.

    The above should save this nation at least half the current cost of our prison system and leave the prison population at or below 10% of what it was.

    March 30, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  3. bob D

    of course the reason usa has hi count of inmates is because the inmates and their familys have
    conned the folks into abolishing death for bad crimes, and instead throw them out on the
    streets too early --- obama, the man who siad he was gonna change everything fumbled
    on this too....... he should have made admin law that law enforcement officers be given 2 pistols
    one each hip and a sawed off shotgun 12 guage 0000 so when any criminal gave any lip
    or any resistance our armed guys could blast away until the dummy stopped moving, etc etc
    maybe we will some day get a president with balls of steel who is not afraid of his own shadow
    and anyway spends all his time sucking up to foreigners who have pots of loot so he can honeydip
    his hands into their loot and walk away with some without the dummiies knowing or as some
    upfront payoff for bribes ongoing, one never knows....

    March 30, 2012 at 2:17 am | Reply
  4. bob D

    Fared Zakaria does not get his reports of the news corrct because all he does is read the news published in India (east India) where he is from so he can translate into usa language and then mickey mouse his report so looks good, i.e. he
    is good at window dressing, dumb as to discovering real news, and has scrambled brains to where he can not
    figure out day from night nor if he is in east India or downtown new york city - o well ho hum ....................

    March 30, 2012 at 2:22 am | Reply
  5. John CA

    Your commentary was misleading on Sunday April 1, 2012 on the number of incarcerated persons in the USA, with private business running our prisons. You pointed to California with its high cost to incarcerate a prisoner. The truth in California it is the high cost of the public service unions, which control California prisons and contributed large amounts of money to the California Politicians in return for lucrative public servant contracts. We recently saw the effects of this when Governor Davis was recalled in California, in part because of his relationship specifically with the State’s Prison Guard Union. Just look at the cost per prisoner across the states. Private business has nothing to do with California prisons including the medical services.

    April 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
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