March 30th, 2012
06:34 PM ET

Zakaria: Incarceration nation

Editor's Note: Tune in this Sunday at 10am or 1pm EST for Fareed Zakaria GPS. 

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Something caught my eye the other day: Pat Robertson, the high priest of the religious right, had some startling things to say about drugs.

"I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol," Mr. Robertson said in a recent interview. "I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think. This war on drugs just hasn't succeeded."

The reason Robertson is for legalizing marijuana is that it has created a prison problem in America that is well beyond what most Americans imagine.

"It's completely out of control," Mr. Robertson said. "Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties - the maximums - some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all."

Read: America needs a 2-page tax code.

He’s right. Here are the numbers: The total number of Americans under correctional supervision (prison, parole, etc.) is 7.1 million, more than the entire state of Massachusetts. Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America...than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."

No other country comes even close to our rates of incarceration. We have 760 prisoners per 100,000 people. Most European countries have one seventh that number (per capita, so it's adjusted for population). Even those on the high end of the global spectrum - Brazil and Poland - have only a quarter the number we do.

If you say this is some kind of enduring aspect of America's "Wild West" culture, you would be wrong. In 1980, our rates of incarceration were a quarter what they are now. What changed was the war on drugs and the mindless proliferation of laws that created criminal penalties for anything and everything. If you don’t believe me, listen to Pat Roberston again. Here's a quote:

"We here in America make up 5% of the world's population, but we make up 25% of jailed prisoners....We have now over 3,000 - the number must be might higher than that - but over 3,000 federal crimes, and every time the liberals pass a bill - I don't care what it involves - they stick criminal sanctions on it. They don't feel there is any way people are going to keep a law unless they can put them in jail.... So we have the jails filled with people who are white collar criminals.

In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.

Read: Deterring Iran is the best option.

Why is this happening? Prisons are a big business. Most are privately run. They have powerful lobbyists and they have bought most state politicians. Meanwhile, we are bankrupting out states and creating a vast underclass of prisoners who will never be equipped for productive lives.

I never thought I'd say this, but God bless you, Pat Robertson.

This is not a scientific poll.

Tune in this Sunday at 10am or 1pm EST for Fareed Zakaria GPS.  For more of Fareed's Takes, click here.

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Topics: From Fareed • Law • United States

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soundoff (1,151 Responses)
  1. dontbow

    yea the problem is we create a problem by incarcerating people for breaking the law. lol just another stupid writer with cnn who doesnt have a clue. maybe we just have too many people commiting crimes? fareed you moron.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  2. Wadesterr

    What I see is a masked veiled comment hidden behind the drug issue. "So we have the jails filled with people who are white collar criminals" READ: Let us remove all laws that let the wealthy politicians and lobbyists defraud the average man.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  3. Frank

    I have been an Emergency Physician for 25 years. Alcohol, tobacco and obesity have kept me very busy. Marijuana...not so much.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Reply
    • Mom in TX

      Frank, you don't think there is a correlation between the legality of alcohol and tobacco and the harm? I am still not buying the argument from the "occasionaly weekend pothead" that this drug is harmless. When it becomes legal and available to anyone who wants it whenever they want it, do you still think the devasting effects of chronic use and abuse won't become apparent? This will be just another social blight like alcohol and tobacco.

      I'll echo the concerns of an earlier responder: I am not sure decriminalization is the answer, but there has to be a better way of enforcing consequences than throwing people in jail.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Reply
      • bark

        Mom, Frank never said marijuana is harmless. Nobody in this forum has. He said it is less of a problem. It is interesting how people take someone elses statements, then twist them to suit their own views.

        March 31, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
      • Patrick

        yup, interesting.

        April 1, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  4. Move to Colorado

    Just move to Colorado, pay your $70.00, tell the nice doctor you hurt your back playing golf twenty years ago and you will have the sweetest weed on the planet.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  5. Total non Sense

    Exterminate serious CRIMINALS ON THE SPOT. (not 10 years later). the goverment save billions and the street are safer.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      you are not worried about due process?

      April 1, 2012 at 12:08 am | Reply
  6. thedpr

    See the wikipedia Incarceration_in_the_United_States article. It says right under the top-most graph "Number of inmates. 1920 to 2006.[1][2] (absolute numbers) General US population grew only 2.8 times in the same period, but the number of inmates increased more than 20 times."

    Google "inc_federalprisonpop.pdf" or "u.s. non-violent offender prison population" and click the first link (sentencingproject dot org). 72% of federal prison inmates are NON-VIOLENT offenders, with no history of violence.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  7. Arthur Lee.

    The product of lack of consequence, and unhindered, responsibility free, freedom? There's a lot of talk of liberty and freedom, but no good moral, or spiritual, education, balanced out, on how to handle it! Too bad there isn't any education on the subject of love.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Reply
    • Arthur Lee.

      How about making ethics a required course in schools? Teach in schools what some parents do not teach their children at home. Just another input.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Reply
      • Arthur Lee.

        They penalize us too much. They want us to be perfect citizens to an imperfect society. Change must start from within all of us, or risk putting more people in jail!

        March 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  8. Mike

    "Most [prisons] are privately run." Are you sure about this?

    March 31, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  9. HOW CAN ANYONE WITH COMMON SENSE VOTE FOR REPUBLICAN traitors?

    It's time to recognize that conservative repuglicans have a mental disorder by default.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  10. Keksi

    What changed was the war on drugs and the mindless proliferation of laws that created criminal penalties for anything and everything.

    CNN literally stole my story and my LINES I have been using for years.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      if that is your story...

      April 1, 2012 at 12:12 am | Reply
  11. engineer_2012

    The problem with this country is that people are raised on an assembly system. This is the reason anyone who tries to do something other than what the assembly line has taught them the go to prison. And this is for everything imaginable. This also breeds another group of so called justice people who probably do the same things that the people in prison do, but within the society acceptable lawful limit. This factory line system has to stop to make real progress, otherwise in a few generations we will have a bunch of people who are really good at flipping tablet and smartphone pages, but none of them will be good at designing methods which will cure a disease of endemic proportions or throw an asteriod out of its earth hitting orbit or solve the energy problem or the climate change problem or something that the society has to really be worried about. This also wastes the police or judicial resources to keep the really bad crimes in check. There must be something wrong in a society where games such as first shooter sell like hot cakes, well to do teenage girls work in sleazy environments to make lots of money. Factory environments are never good. Even china has realized this and is moving up the value chain. All they do is pigeonhole people or criminals in this case to continue doing the same thing or crime.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  12. Scared

    AMERICAN GULAG is what this country has become. Here anyone faces police harrassment all the time and you can go to jail for nothing. America is punishing and destroying its own people. American police reminds me of Gestapo. In other countries you may be affraid of thieves but here we are all afraid of the police and the judicial system. It is all about money.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  13. Mr.insight

    It's easy to say legalize it but people need to understand. when you get rid of one problem you create 100 more. More careless people, more drugs sold on your street corner, More guns being smuggled in and more violent crimes. Look how many people die from drunk drivers. Look how the prison inmates use cigarettes as currency to smuggle weapons and more potent types of drugs. If you legalize weed your legalizing pcp and other additives people will add for a bigger high. The war on drugs is a losing battle but imagine the world if no puts up a fight. People walking around like spaced out zombies on street corners begging for money to buy legal weed. Weed is only the beginning and that will lead to a society of careless idiots who kill, rob and steal for the next high. You may say a lot of this is already happening but if you open the flood gates it will be more devastation than u can imagine. The prison system will stay pack regardless because there are plenty of arrest that have nothing to do with smoking weed. Even if they saved a billion the people would never see that money put to good use to benefit where they live in the country. Only the fat cats who control the money would see the difference. Don't be fooled! And look at all possibilities before jumping to certain sides.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
    • bark

      I would rather live in a nation full of beggars than a nation full of robbers. Americas massive deficit due to the Wall Street bailout, private contractor operated foreign wars, and easy credit will bankrupt us faster than legalized marijuana.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  14. Edward

    Cocaine, heroine, meth. These are drugs that should never be legal and the response should be one of treatment. Lock up cold turkey if necessary. These particular drugs actually do destroy people all on their very own. Marijuana? Smoke till you have had your fill then smoke again. OK munchy break in there. OK two no three munchy breaks in there.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  15. Dan Bowen

    What a gross oversimplification of the problem...and please, cite a case where someone got ten years for nothing more than having one joint on them...I'm all ears. Should we legalize pot, maybe, but lets not suggest for one second that our jails are housing a bunch of single-joint-in-the-pocket accidents...its a ridiculous assumption. The 'War on Drugs' has failed, no question, but if we are going to legalize pot or any other drug, I don't want to pay for healthcare for those that use them...or cigarettes, or booze etc. I don't want to see wellfare dollars end up in the hands of those that spend money on drugs. How about injecting a little personal responsibility back into our system? How about us ending the subsidizing the morons who decide selling dope is better than finishing high school. This is a hack article that doesn't even begin to address the fact that we have a crime problem and that is exactly what people are doing when they are using pot or any other drugs...they are illegal which means they are breaking the existing laws. It also suggests to me that if you are willing to take on that risk you are willing to take on other risks or laws and where and when do we stop making excuses for people who chose to break our laws? Just because one disagrees with a law doesn't suddenly invalidate it and those that decided it was worth the risk have only themselves to blame.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  16. Sarah

    Why is the poll about marijuana? The real issue is the way our prison system is the new form of slavery and how big corporations use slave prison labor to compete on the world market. For example, did you know that corporate farms use prison labor to work in their fields? What's that sound like to you?

    March 31, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      like you pulled some facts out of your hiney and are trying to raise ca ca.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
    • Law Abiding Citizen

      The prisoners are not working for free – they get $50,000 a year living expenses which is a lot more than the average tax paying law abiding citizen- we should be getting some labor out of them! I bet And – I'd love to know what "Corporate Farms" you are talking about!

      April 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  17. Joshua Nesbit

    The Police will lose their extra-cash income if marijuana is made legal 🙂 Cops love drugs to remain illegal, it justifies their jobs. Making drugs legal will remove the incentive for crime for many poor people, -we can treat them in return for surrendering. But cops won't like it, ... nor will suburban stupid white house-wives.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
    • Mr.insight

      Funny I thought keeping the public safe, answering 911 calls and risking there lives everyday justified there work. Not to mention the robberies, fire arms, drugs and assault arrests they make everyday. The violations they prevent and the people that are arrested for bigger crimes because they were caught doing smaller ones. I thought the six cops that died last year doing the right thing and all the critical decisions they make on a daily basis justified there stressful job. In new York there there is 30,000 911 calls a day every day. Next time there is a shoot out put on a vest and grab a gun jump right in the middle of it .

      April 1, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
  18. Astonished

    LAND OF THE FREE ? This is the biggest joke about our antemn !

    March 31, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
    • Arthur Lee.

      I do not put much respect, or fear to the justice system at all anymore. The cops have already proven, firsthand to me, that they can be just as corrupt, or worse, as the rest of us!!!

      March 31, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Iran, as well as America, has "land of the free" in its anthem?
      I did not know that.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  19. srichey321

    One thing we Americans do really well is create a need for a need for a certain product, be it a short term solution to diabetes, cancer or recidivism. Have a product to sell? Not a problem. Sell bad food, contaminate the environment with chemicals, destroy education and the middle class. All you have to do is buy off the politicians, get the right supreme court justices and corrupt/disempower or empower the right agency.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  20. GenericMan

    I relate the US to a bad parent. We suffer from bad parenting, a stifling environment, and abusive punishment.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
    • honestamerican

      nice

      March 31, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      If you hate living in America, go home to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan...

      March 31, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  21. spocmmonster

    I agree with everything except the conclusion that blames all these laws on liberals. I think it is conservatives, such as George Bush, Cheney, Reagen, etc., that create all these laws designed to enforce conservative views on everyone. Liberals are for freedome of citizens and less freedom for business, conservatives stand for business freedom and less freedom for individuals.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Reply
  22. Sandy

    I have said for years that probably two major prisons in the US would hold all the offenders that are truly a menace to society and can never be released and I may be overestimating by one.
    Absolutely prisons are HUGE business...for many many people.....including the corporate culture,the small towns and those who administer and survive from the so-called JUSTICE system.....I am thankful that this is finally being addressed in the media......this is just a small start but perhaps our citizens will begin to analyze why so many of our citizens are incarcerated
    and/or have a criminal record.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  23. honestamerican

    where are my comments?

    March 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Reply
    • mitch

      Mine too I've tried posting several times even went back and checked to make sure it didn't violate terms of use?

      March 31, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • bark

      A web administrator has deleted your comments. It has happened to me too. Im not sure why they do this. It just might be that they are running out of hard drive space, but I doubt it.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
      • honestamerican

        I write too well.

        March 31, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  24. KEVIN21261

    One interesting fact that has been left out in this report is that the US has the LONGEST prison term times ordered by our judicial sytem. And we have been number one in the world at keeping our prisoners incarcerted for very long periods of "easy" time. Our prisoners learn to become dependant on a structured environment and cannot handle themselves independantly once they are released. Ergo recitivism. Short hard time is best to reduce recitivism and even the thought of committing a crime.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  25. kevin

    Mass murders, terrorists and those who get death and life sentences are the only ones that should remain in jail for more than a year. Everyone else should be incarcerated only as long as they need mental health evaluations and counseling. Our politicians need to understand that jail is a silly punishment that does no good to rehab the criminal, does not protect society once they get out, and does not repay any debt to society. (community service and fines are the only way to pay back society)

    Even violent offenders, rapists, child molesters, etc. should get supervised parole within a year (i.e., a quarter-way house). What good does it do to put someone in prison for 15 years and then let them out on the streets again? Every criminal should be sentenced to hundreds or thousands of hours community service as punishment. Electronic monitoring and at-home imprisonment should be standard. $50,000 a year is too much for too many criminals. Get smarter America!

    March 31, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Reply
    • GenericMan

      I find this interesting.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  26. epitaph

    The legalization of marijuana (or any other drug) in the United States will forever be a catch22. For every pro there is a con and for every con there is a pro. You can sit here and debate this topic or the war on drugs all you want and still just be going in circles. You can talk about how good or bad legalizing pot would be for this country and it's inhabitants for years and not get anywhere. When are we going to realize that the problem is not the drug itself but the people who choose to use and abuse it as well as the flawed criminal justice system that needs to control it? We already live in a society that loves to degrade, demoralize and slowly kill itself, why give people another legal excuse to ruin their lives and the lives of others sending our country further down the rabbit hole of destruction? Yes, this is a drug just like any other drug whether it is over the counter, at your local pub or in your favorite grocery store (I am referring to prescription drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or even sugar) but it still has the power to dramatically effect and change the lives of people. We live in a society of selfish, self-indulging, addictive people who have learned that it is far easier to live off of the success and hard work of others. Many of these people are already stoned, or drunk, or lazy, or high or otherwise incompetent. But they do it illegally, so it is harder for them to obtain and there is more risk involved. The risk also keeps many well-meaning but ill-minded people from taking part in it and causing more destruction. One commenter got it right when they said that those high on pot just want to sit on the couch, do nothing and get the munchies. Is that not a problem? Do we really want a nation that is even lazier than it is now? Do we want to support more individuals who now have a legal excuse to sit in their house (mom's basement/flop house/alley) all day and do nothing? Those would be and are OUR tax dollars at work, legally supporting the poor choices of others. Before we can address the pros and cons of legalizing certain drugs we need to take a hard look at our society and ask the question of whether or not it is really worth it. Other countries, such as Amsterdam, have legalized marijuana but they do not face the same socio-economic crisis and laziness that our country faces. I work in social services and in public schools and I see how this drug (and all the others) have to potential to do so much damage. As it is there are not enough funds or resources to help these people. Giving them a legal scape-goat (which alcohol/nicotine/scrips already has) will only make it worse. It may be fun to get high on your own, you may be responsible with it but there are millions of others who are not. Those are the people who are not ready for the legalization of marijuana.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • BioHzrd420

      The same pro and con arguments you make for marijuana are EASILY transferred to using alcohol (which is quite legal).

      April 2, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  27. kath

    Whether or not you are in agreement with legalization, can we at least come to an agreement that possession should not carry a jail sentence? I really cant understand why anyone thinks it is a good idea to put a young person in jail for smoking weed. It will ruin his life by giving him a record, and it will cost the tax payers a fortune. The lobbyists are the real reason it is illegal. What on earth would we do with the empty jail cells?

    March 31, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  28. Bruce

    Cal state students paying around 10,000/yr and inmate cost is around 80,000/yr. is what I heard, A powerful prison guard union exists but it is a disagreeable job to frisk men, knew a couple guys that took that job as they struggled with finances, they get rich and then retire for sanity. I think today's marijuana is too strong–wouldn't advise it for an elderly person without them getting used to it, the buds are not good type (like bogus marijuana), they're getting more hospital emergency admissions on strong grass. Legalizing would help Mexico (all that crime for US illegal drug use), its going to be here in force some day if we don't find a better way. We had heroin addicts in the 70's and they stole to buy the drugs, then when they had methadone they stopped and felt better too, my mother rented to them, I was her security detail.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Although this is a discussion, the facts presented have to be valid, reliable, verifiable.
      Can you provide any fact?

      April 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  29. legalize

    GET LEGAL IN MICHIGAN!! http://www.naturesanswerinfo@gmail.com

    March 31, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  30. uddi smith

    our prison and justice system is soo out of proportion: someone steals then confiscate what they own; someone drives drunk then confiscate their car and with electronic monitoring keep them in their home (outside from going to their job); white-collar crimes and tax-evasion put them to work in community services there is soo much that could be covered that way especially since we have everywhere budget-shortages --revamp the entire sentencing system: only violence against other humans require prison time /// prescription drugs and alcohol are as terrible damaging as illegal drugs, no difference there

    March 31, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
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