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 (1,150 Responses)
  1. JB

    Never thought I would agree with Pat Robertson. Great piece.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  2. Bigiri, J

    BLACK PEOPLE WAKE UP and smile the coffee, too many of us are incarcerated for no reasons.

    Female
    Male Totals White Black Hispanic Female Totals White Black Hispanic
    2009 2,096,300 693,800 841,000 442,000 201,200 92,100 64,800 32,300

    Note: Detailed categories exclude persons who reported two or more races. All totals include persons under age 18.
    aIncludes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders, and persons identifying two or more races.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      and you would like us to believe you are American?
      hehehehehehehehe...

      March 31, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  3. Mike

    Pat Robertson is absolutely right. Now, just don't listen to ANYTHING else he says – he's a nutcase!

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

      you are complex, aren't you habibi?

      March 31, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
      • GenericMan

        Patrick, you seem to think that everyone who has progressive ideas are eastern immigrant. I am a 33 year old white male who was born in Houston. Ditch your preconceived notions.

        March 31, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
      • Patrick

        sure thing habibi

        April 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        Here is the definition of progressive:
        Adjective: Happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.
        Noun: A person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.
        Synonyms: adjective. advanced – onward – forward
        noun. progressist – progressionist
        So, what progressive ideas were proposed?

        April 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  4. baughtnpaidfor

    Hes onto the point ~ but didnt really get to the root...which is this in a nutshell; when you educate a person (and this statement is COLORBLIND) you have no vested interest (besides well, having an intelligent, productive society!) in that person once they have graduated. However; the recidivism; the churn of prisoners "in the system" is what keeps literally millions of people employed at a NOMINAL SALARY. You have just here in California for every ONE inmate you have 6 YES 6 people that make a "living" off of that ONE inmate (court clerks, staff, Law Enforcement, Judges, Marshall's, bounty hunters, bail bondsmen, traffic schools. This is the root of the problem and when the spiderweb grows outward you find and again just here California, OVER 650,000 (YES THOUSAND) codes/statutes/(LAWS) on the books waiting to FEED THAT MACHINE (the system). If you really want to change it, take a book of the "laws" and go thru line item by line and DELETE it; and then you will have made a difference and we can get on EDUCATING people instead of incarcerating them.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      spewing poison and trying to raise ca ca.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  5. Rob in FL

    As long as prisons remain open to FOR-PROFIT corporations at the taxpayers expense we will always have this problem.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  6. Johnno

    So strange to see all the people taking Fareed's lead with the words, "Never thought I'd agree with Pat Robertson about anything". It's pure idiocy. I'm sure you are all shocked that Pat loves his kids as well. You might find it shocking that Mr. Robertson frowns on the torture of small animals as well.

    Is it just that this forum is just chock full of Christian haters?

    March 31, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Reply
    • bark

      Actually, Yawn-o, most of the arguments in this forum are based on economics, addictive properties of marijuana, and the expense of incarceration. You might want to actually read others posts before u write yours. Most of the people in this forum are probably Christians like yourself (not that it matters). Churches oppose marijuana, but that is not our best argument to promote its legalization.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        and you are islamic jihadist?

        March 31, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
      • Johnno

        Such a clever play on my name! I bet that goes over well in 5th grade.

        My post was about what is clearly visible in the comments section, not the article itself. Thanks for filling the stereotype.

        April 1, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  7. Mike

    Wait, did Robertson just accuse the liberals of creating the laws that put so many people in jail? Really?! I thought "law and order" was a conservative thing. Oh, I get it, things like law and order, a booming economy, and wars are all the conservatives doing - until they go south. Then it's the liberal's fault.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • Michigander5

      Actually... when marijuana laws were first being passed Mayor la Guardia (a republican) had commissioned the report that contradicted Anslinger. politics is a confusing flip floppy world.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        depending on the current facts.
        For example, if you open the fridge and find no milk, you can assume there is no milk in the house.
        What if your teen age son took the milk to his room?
        Then you do have milk in the house, its just that the milk is not in the fridge.

        April 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  8. PracticalFool

    The article was written by someone who doesn't know anything about the criminal law nor does he want to learn about what is really going on in the court system. Instead, he misinforms the WORLD by quoting a man who doesn't know what he is talking about. Quoting someone who doesn't understand probation/parole or the number of crimes committed in the US every year is irresponsible. Thank you for making up the news.

    News Flash: Someone said that God just pulled up at the corner 'Stop and Rob'. Get on your next story Zakaria.

    Ooops, it turns out that it wasn't God, it was Rod, the ICEE guy. Since, you won't look into the facts, this shouldn't be a problem. Put in big letters at the top of your article, "GOD is actually a guy named Rod who makes ICEES". You can thank me later.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      You are doing a pretty job of pasing misinformation yourself habibi.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:01 am | Reply
  9. arias

    The only way to solve all of the worlds problems at once is for money to not exist. Money really is the root of all evil. What funds war, cartels, governments and all things bad.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      so you would have us return to trading camels and carpets?

      March 31, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  10. Bob Knippel

    A large proportion of the comments concern the so called "War on Drugs' and drugs in general, but the core issue regarding the American penal system is neither, but the significant number of laws which can result in incarceration for things which should have no connection to prison whatsoever. Any law might have provisions for jail time for violation, but does making jaywalking a crime for which a person might serve years in prison make jaywalking deserving of the punishment? The senselessness of all too many laws which make all too many things illegal is profound, much more so than the logic behind the laws themselves.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
    • rocknroll

      There is NO logic behind most laws, only politics and perceived public opinion. Our legislators pass laws out of expediency. They have in innate “knee Jerk” reaction when they smell the power of manipulated public opinion. If they vote tough laws they can appeal to the moral majority (or at least those who think they are moral at other’s expense). They can tally their votes as the jaywalkers rot in prison, but what concern is that for them; they most certainly wouldn’t “jaywalk”; if they did, they would pay off the authorities so it is not reported.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  11. amar

    some of the petty criminals should be just caned like they do in Singapore and thrown back in the streets. it seems to be a real deterrent. at least we don;t have to feed them with tax payer money.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      pretty strange!

      March 31, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  12. rocknroll

    Fareed got it right when he said: "the mindless proliferation of laws that created criminal penalties for anything and everything". It does not matter if it is marijuana or any other offense that can be sensationalized, politicized, demonized or reap profits from. If our nation continues at its current rate of NEW LAWS and incarceration for offenses that cause no harm to ANYONE, we may all be behind bars for simply voicing our opinions. Now where have I heard that? Might it have been a tad east of New York in a land of tall blond men, or was it during a period religious questioning and inquiry? I know, let’s get together and pass a law to stop passing inane laws.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      unbelievable!!!!!

      March 31, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
  13. Keith

    Apparently somebody forgot to invite Pat to the ALEC conferences where the For-Profit Prison Industry writes laws and gives them to GOP legislators to pass in order to make sure for-profit prisons are increasingly for-profitable.

    There should NEVER EVER be a financial incentive to send somebody to prison. How many conservatives think it would be a good idea that the police should get to set up radar speed traps so they catch you speeding in order to take away your car and sell it so the police officers themselves get the money? Any conservative who claims they think that's a good idea is lying. No conservative wants to worry about cops hiding around every corner ready to take away their car and sell it so the police officers themselves can make a profit.

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

      there should never be any incentive to lie–but you do it all the time.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  14. Chad

    The war on drugs has failed. Whether or not you agree with the legalization/decriminalization of drugs (specifically, marijuana), the negative effects of this 'war on drugs' significantly out-weigh what little benefits (if any), in my opinion. Our leaders have invaded citizen's privacy for far too long. Why is it a crime to smoke marijuana in a house with children while it is perfectly legal to smoke countless cigarettes, even with a child in your lap when the Government itself said that marijuana smoke is less harmful than cigarette smoke? Why are we sending non-violent small time marijuana offenders to jail for 5-10 years? And, when they are done with prison, they can't find good jobs, their reputation is forever tarnished and then this 'war on drugs' separates families. It's time we start calling out greedy and corrupt politicians who pass legislation that curtail our rights under disguise.

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

      unbelievable!!!

      March 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  15. Jeff Lucas

    12.5% of the Federal prison population are marijuana offenders. On average 12.5% of the States prison populations are pot offenders.
    The FBI reports that on average, a person is arrested for pot every 38 seconds, mainly young people for possession.

    Legalizing pot will not only cut our drug war strategy budget in half, it will also reduce our federal and state prison populations by at least 10%.

    legalizing pot would also free up the 16 states that have medical marijuana laws to regulate the markets instead of sitting back with tied hands letting violent drug gangs make millions on the backs of sick people.

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

      I researched these stats and could not find them anywhere.
      Could you please share you information source?

      March 31, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  16. commentator

    Not saying that the pot users have often a good level of educatiobn that could be beneficial for the economy. But everywhere you get that feeling that the governments are couscious of the vast waste of talent and intelligence it is for the society and the economy, and the prohibition creates armed gangs and all, but they prefer to put their head in the sand as this parallel world solves a part of the problem of underemployement of the more exposed populations. Maybe when the civil war is declared, in the hot spots like in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 and lately in London, and all over the place the governments finally decide to stop all this nonsense and legalize

    March 31, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  17. jon

    The media likes to say "oh they are just simple drug offenders" but they neglect to tell you all the crimes they committ to pay for their habit. Robbery, burglary, mugging, all go hand in hand with drug crimes

    March 31, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
    • Chad

      Jon, that is a very broad statement that I am not inclined to entirely believe. There are a small percentage of people who will steal, burglarize, murder (etc.) for any nasty habit they have. To simply tag this to drug offenders is an injustice itself and makes you sound ignorant. Look at the facts, sir. Quite a few marijuana offenders in jail/prisons are non-violent first time offenders. It's sad.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  18. wyggn

    It's insane and should be criminal that private prison companies pay politicians millions of dollars, from the billions of U.S. tax-dollars they receive, to enact harsher laws with longer sentences.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      and where did you get that info?
      Please do share.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  19. guest

    personally I don't care if marijuana is legal or not, it is like alcohol and cigarettes in my opinion which I don't do either, and people who want to try and live a long healthy life will be better off not smoking anything, smoking still gives lung problems and cancers and waste of money etc. I also think there's enough evil people in this society that a little jail time is sometimes in order to teach them a lesson before they get even worse even though some people choose to let jail be their career or retirement home.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
    • guest

      eat more plants (fruits and vegetables) don't smoke them. you'll live a better quality of life in the end

      March 31, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  20. guest

    some countries would be better off having more prisons. You hear about outrageous crimes against women in Africa and the Middle East and other developing countries and it seems they don't even have a police system to call and report things to. I think Fareed's statistics are misleading.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      How are the stats misleading?
      You make a statement and then you do not explain it.
      You might as well have said nothing at all.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  21. Jen

    Marijuana use can still be illegal without resorting to jail time. Community service can replace jail time. Legalizing marijuana may be popular but only because people are forgetting that it is a gateway drug. As a gateway drug, the drug user will still end up doing another drug that remains illegal. Drugs are a form of escapism; do we wish to promote escapism? Marijuana may seem harmless but ask how many crack users started with marijuana. To see legalizing marijuana as a cure for over incarceration is to not have thought this through enough, it may actually lead to more incarcerations and therefore more profit for for-profit prisons.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  22. Imminent

    Oh look, another pro-weed article in disguise. *sigh* I'll support an article that just spits out the underlying message rather than hide it with smoke. The rest about big business prisons is slightly silly. Here's an idea – don't commit serious crimes and they'll go out of business.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:08 am | Reply
  23. martialeagle

    America's last three POTUS-Clinton,Bush and Obama- all smoked pot. Bush was an alcoholic until he was 40. Obama did coke and dropped pills. "Legalize it" Peter Tosh It has become the road that leads to the White House.

    Legalize all drugs, regulate them, tax them and educate about them. It will put the drug lords out of business and the prison industrial complex too.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:11 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      do you have proof of what you are saying or are you just flapping your toothless gums?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
  24. magneticink

    ...yeah, yeah, and keep throwing those unemployed fathers to prison for missing a child support payment, yeah, yeah...

    April 1, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  25. Jeremy

    There are so many people that have commented about how great it is that Pat Robertson is talking about this when they didn't even notice his real intentions for talking about the prisons being overcrowded! Fareed Zakaria didn't even notice and he quoted Pat in this article. Here is the quote again: "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." We have jails filled with people who are white collar criminals? And the truth shall set you free! This isn't about marijuana or the people jailed for it! This is about rich people being jailed for white collar crimes! Learn to read between the lines people!

    April 1, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
  26. martialeagle

    As usual black people are invisible to Fareed. Blacks are in prison primarily as a result of the bigoted method of prosecuting non violent drug offenders. Blacks get steered into the criminal justice system while whites get rehab, probation or the charges get dropped. See Michelle Alexander " The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness" and Khalil Gibran Muhammad " The Condemnation of Blackness : Race, Crime and the Rise of Urban America"

    Fareed how about some black people -African, African American, Carribbean, Brazilian, Central/South America etc.- on your program for a change? There are far more blacks in America than there are either Jews or Muslims. And the same goes for Hispanics/Latinos. Why are they invisible to you Fareed?

    April 1, 2012 at 12:23 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Apart from trying to incite race division, you are not saying anything intelligent.
      Explain yourself!.......in English

      April 1, 2012 at 8:27 am | Reply
  27. fareedTheSellout

    very simple, this person is realizing his end is near he is afraid of hell. he helped put these laws in place he'll probably end up in hell no matter what now.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:27 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      You are so funny!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
  28. GenericMan

    The cure for America's illness is quality education. Therefore, our prognosis is grim. Reading the comments from fellow voters is terrifying.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:29 am | Reply
  29. Mavent

    Show me ONE case of a single person doing prison time for simple possession of Pot. Just ONE. You can't, because their aren't any, and haven't been for over ten years. Yet Potheads are always whining about how sad it is that our prisons are full of recreational pot smokers.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:41 am | Reply
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