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. BK

    I like how when you say it should be legal, the only real defense people have is to accuse you of being a stoner even when you obviously aren't. Not just people online, but people that know me in real life that know I work for a bank that gives regular drug tests.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:57 am | Reply
  2. RS

    Even if you have the skills, the revolving door is systemic. I have 7 years of experience in the mobile telecom industry. I was denied numerous jobs. Most don't call, but the ones that do don't hire ex-felons. By the way, not all felons are created equal. I helped a friend commit a burglary for a few hundred bucks when I was 18. Nobody was hurt and I spent 3 years and 9 months of total incarceration. In 2008, I was eligible for a waiver to enlist in the Army and a judge said to me "if the United States Army is willing to accept a convicted felon this country's in bad shape". I tried and continue to try to get ahead. I'll be 27 last month. Although I have good references from former employers, businesses like Radio Shack and many, many others discriminate against applicants with criminal convictions. After months of being out of work and trying to land a job in my profession and disclosing my history, I was never given a chance at a job. So for the first time I checked "no" in that section of the app, and lo and behold I'm hired...albeit for minimum wage. By not giving work and educational opportunities to people, you're almost guaranteeing that they'll go to/ go back to prison. But any 'aware' inmate can tell you that. The system doesn't want to rehabilitate people because the system needs those people. Thankfully I have my family who helps me out, but a lot of the people in question don't. Is it any wonder that many recommit crimes when they get out? Most have no work experience and little to no education which makes them practically unhireable. I see the system for what it is. It cares not about rehabilitation, and companies that have blanket policies against hiring people who were in prison are doing their communities a disservice. Goodness knows if that person is able to work and earn a decent wage he or she won't resort to mugging you. I'm not excusing, condoning or justifying this. But I live in the real world, and in the real world, all living beings are ultimately interested in their own survival.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
    • dkva76

      our government loves to create more government jobs to make themselves look good and enjoy the tax payer's money. that's why there are so many prisons and you got a department of A-Z which creates so many red tape... just look at the IRS, most agents don't even know half of the laws they enforce.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:32 am | Reply
  3. man2525

    Many on the right have been saying this, including Ed Rollins. Even though prison wastes more taxpayer money than unemployment, the improvement to the unemployment rate that comes from pulling more people into prison made it popular with Presidents Clinton and Obama, who has increased drug-related arrests. I don't think that people should be used like this, even though I recognize that this is begin used as a ploy by conservatives to drive a wedge between the NORML progressives and the "didn't inhale" liberals.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:05 am | Reply
  4. ACG

    Getting tired of hearing Fareed complain about how awful the US is. There's a reason why he's living here and not Pakistan, and it's because the US is still a better place to live than practically anywhere else in the world.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  5. dkva76

    I seriously think that the government legalizing marijuana and having the states sell it can increase its revenue. It my state, the local government regulates and sells hard liquor thru its stores, why no marijuana. Government gets revenue, less convicted criminals related to marijuana charges, and destroy the illegal drug trafficking....if and only if the marijuana is good and fairly priced as to what can be trafficked or home grown.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:26 am | Reply
  6. Jim

    Fareed is not complaining. He is a patriot. He is pointing out a serious problem that has a relatively simple solution in the hopes of making our country a better place to live.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:35 am | Reply
  7. mike

    I do not think that marijuana is the issue this article causes me personally. What causes me concern is that we are a free society. It scares me knowing that on our watch we have allowed this great nation of free men to become a police state. We are a police state with the highest incarceration rate in human history.

    Anyone who lobbies against freedom is an enemy of the people. We should be ashamed that we have allowed imprisoning free people to become a profiteering industry.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply
    • habibi

      yup, we, followers of islam, would not dream of incarcerating "free men", only the slaves we keep in our caves.
      Women are not mentioned because they only exist to be used and abused.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:33 am | Reply
  8. PorkNBeans

    Everyone commenting missed the point.
    Legalization of marijuana isn't the issue.
    The issue is, we have more incarcerated people than any other nation on earth.
    That in itself is tragic. I think Ohio has over 30 prisons now, just to name one state.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:49 am | Reply
    • habibi

      You see, in Iran, Syria, Iraq...we do not put people in jails, we chop chop chop their heads.
      No criminals–no problems!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
  9. trollol

    This is nothing new. People have talked about this problem for a very long time. More laws = more criminals. Most americans are in fact criminals. Anti piracy laws are ridiculous. They do nothing to help the many but they serve only the needs of the few.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:00 am | Reply
    • habibi

      You made the following statement:
      " Anti piracy laws are ridiculous. They do nothing to help the many but they serve only the needs of the few".
      Can you explain why these laws are ridiculous and how they serve only the needs of the few?
      Also,you could explain who is the "few"

      April 1, 2012 at 8:41 am | Reply
  10. TheTruth

    Legalization? It should have never been illegal. But the crimes committed while under any substance influence, not aggravated due to having consumed any substance in the first place. Living in the US seems like a pretty risky endeavor to me now. I will try to move to Europe, and provide them with my productive life, since there is a greater danger of living in the US. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And I don't want to be in jail. It is a lot harder to be in jail in Mexico, and still I managed to fall accused of a crime I did not commit.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:08 am | Reply
    • habibi

      Au revoir, Auf widersehen, Asta la vista baby!

      April 1, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
  11. metvet4

    this is but one facet of National Socialism. by every definition the United States of America is a Fascist State.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:12 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Okay we are willing to listen to you.
      Why do you believe that America is a facist state?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
  12. Georgie

    Right now, the only people that benefit from from current laws against Marijuana are Criminals!, ...and Prisons! Leagalize and tax Marijuana, ...and EVERYBODY wins!

    April 1, 2012 at 2:20 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      How do criminals benefit from the current laws??????????????
      Did you not say that there are too many people in jails?
      Your thinking is a little convulated.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
  13. jackenstein

    Where did Pat Robertson get those statistics? "We here in America make up 5% of the world's population, but we make up 25% of jailed prisoners"?
    Oh, I know, because they don't count the dungeons of 3rd world countries as prisons.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:28 am | Reply
  14. craig

    Excellent article and a truth that has been far too long ignored. Criminal behavior and faux criminal behavior is big business here in the US. I think it's a pretty scarey Orwellian phenomena occurring in this country when you have rates this high. Now, you think you will ever see a decrease from this 7.1 million inmates? Think again – these prison families – judges – and other parasites (I'm looking at you bottom feeders of human filth called lawyers – will never let that happen – their comfy lifestyles depend too heavily on the outrage. God save us – this government will only seek to bury us.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:29 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      What the hell is "faux criminal behavior"??????????

      April 1, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
      • Babs

        Maybe you should ask Trayvon Martin what faux criminal behavior does

        April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  15. mmi16

    Law Enforcement is always looking for low hanging fruit to pump up thier stats. Drug users are among the lowest hanging and easiest to use to say 'we are tough on crime – we a HIGH overall conviction rate'. Yea – arrest and convict 1000 druggies (users not kingpins); 25 murderers, 50 robbers 25 Assults – none of which result in convictions and you still have a conviction rate of over 90%.

    The other reality is that most of the 'robbery' type crimes are commited to pay for drug habits – and they would rather prosecute the drug charges than the robbery type charges.

    Having the larges prison population in the world is nothing to brag about.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:40 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake


      April 1, 2012 at 8:52 am | Reply
  16. Robert

    Bottom line is this. We can no longer afford to incarcerate people for frivolous crimes such as drug use. Fine them and treat them. Unless they have committed a violent crime, jail time is not needed. Jail is to protect society from violent criminals.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
  17. S40

    For all of you out there saying "lets legalize drugs" step back and look at your statement for a second..Have you ever lived with or known somebody on drugs? I have and they wasted their lives and became junkies, with the fallout falling on their families. They ended up spending most of their money on drugs and forgetting little things like paying bills, buying food, taking care of their kids etc..Well, all of you say its a personal choice that should ultimately be up to the consumer..What about the lives that are affected by that "personal choice?" Who foots the bill when they get sick from their "personal choice?" What happens to the family and friends when their loved one or best friend goes down the tubes despite their best effort to save them? What about the cost to an alreadly struggling health care system? Alcohol and Tobacco is legalized and look how good we have done with that! What is the government going to do? Legalize and regulate drugs, like tobacco and alcohol, and then years or decades later make and pathetic and belated attempts to not do the very thing they promoted in the first place? All those people who want to do drugs and not have it be a crime, what are you going to do when the very thing you asked for destroys your life and you come begging for help? And dont give me that crap that marijuanna is harmless and doing drugs only hurts the person using them...Thats #@$% because i watched people and i have known people whose lives were ruined..

    April 1, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply
    • Tom Clark

      It is not the drugs fault for your friend’s downfall. It is the fault of the system. I smoke pot, have for 20 years, and it does not affect my life. I have known a great deal of people who live perfectly productive life while smoking pot. The real problem lies with hard drugs such as Meth, the new killer of the 21st century, crack, coke, and prescription drugs. The more we focus on Pot the less we have to focus on the killer drugs. Through education is the only way to prevent children from making dumb mistakes that will lead them down a path of disperse. Because we keep lying to our children saying "that all drugs are bad" causes distrust. Once they find out that Pot will not kill them or ruin their life they will be more apt to try other drugs that are highly addictive and destructive. Anything that is abused can become addictive and destructive. Make Pot legal will reduce the use of harmful drugs, especially in the prescription drug market which is now the main reason why it is kept illegal. Pharmcom stands to lose millions when their patience switches from their expensive highly addictive drugs to a cheap alternative like marijuana which has more medical benefits. It has been around since the beginning of time and it’s not going anywhere. Locking up non-violent offenders does more damage to their life than the drug could ever do!

      April 1, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  18. lacoaster

    "...the mindless proliferation of laws that created criminal penalties for anything and everything." I've been thinking about this for a while now. Glad you brought it up.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:01 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Since you are a deep thinker, could you identify those "frivolous laws"?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
  19. Sean Soles

    These are some of the disturbing truths about America that really pose some dangerous questions about where we're heading as a nation. This is the subject matter worthy of reporting on. This is one of the most important debates we need to be engaging in as a people, especially when it comes to who we're voting into legislature and the burden they're putting on society. I think an overwhelming majority feel as though it's absolute BS that we're entrusted to be adults when we drink, yet face prison if we should so happen to smoke some pot. Anybody who's honest about the matter knows damn well it makes no sense. And anybody who has so much as skimmed the surface about its criminalization knows the only criminals are the lawmakers that that made it such.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:21 am | Reply
  20. Joe Sixpack

    The "War on Drugs" is a for-profit enterprise to support banks, the military-industrial complex, and the prison industry.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      You are a comedian,right?

      April 1, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
  21. Tom


    April 1, 2012 at 6:22 am | Reply
  22. mitch

    I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was 17 and I still smoke it on a fairly regular basis both for its medical benefits and for recreational enjoyment. I’ve never committed a crime or shirked off my responsibilities because I needed to get stoned and other than a few minor moving violations none of which included DWI or DUI, have I ever had any contact with law enforcement. I have always held a job, paid my taxes and if anyone of you ever met me on the street you would think I’m just another average Joe going about his business which I pretty much am. There’s nothing special or remarkable about me, I am simply just another citizen of this great nation trying to earn a living. I am God fearing a good friend and a good neighbor who likes to be involved with his community and who enjoys helping people who are less fortunate again pretty much just your average Joe.

    April 1, 2012 at 6:23 am | Reply
    • mitch

      I’m not a tough guy and I seriously doubt that I’m intimidating or strike fear in to the heart of anyone I meet but let me just say this. While I’m not a criminal nor am I looking for conflict it would be well advised that anyone that doesn’t approve of what I’m doing to keep their noses out of my personal business or there will be war!

      April 1, 2012 at 6:27 am | Reply
      • mitch

        It’s my business what I decide to put in my body and unless I am interfering with another person’s right to their pursuit of freedom and happiness or acting against the well being of another person you need to keep your judgmental noses out of what I choose for myself and well get along just fine as we have for the past 30 years. I don’t tell you how to live your lives so don’t be trying to impose your misguided and immoral will on me or deprive me of my freedom because you don’t agree with what I choose for myself!

        April 1, 2012 at 6:37 am |
      • mitch

        They will have to carry me out in a body bag

        April 1, 2012 at 6:53 am |
      • mitch

        before I will voluntary surrender myself

        April 1, 2012 at 6:55 am |
      • mitch

        "ентитета" Translated to Serbian to bypass word filter. This is why I had to post my comment that way?

        April 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • mitch

      to any person or persons seeking to deprive me of my freedom simply because I choose to exercise my given right to freedom of choice.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:58 am | Reply
      • mitch

        “Deprive me”

        April 1, 2012 at 7:10 am |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        Mitch, buddy, you sound a little too angry to be a pot head.
        Peace man!

        April 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • will

      I agree wityh you Mitch. Genisis 9:3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  23. Patrick

    My life has been threatened too many times.
    I am never coming back here.
    The islamic agenda wins.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      You have been punked.
      April Fools!

      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am | Reply
  24. money

    Wow, wonderful blog layout! How lengthy have you ever been blogging for? you make blogging glance easy. The total glance of your web site is fantastic, let alone the content material!

    April 1, 2012 at 7:39 am | Reply
  25. Spencer

    A little confused here. I came away from reading this article thinking i) too many people in our prisons, ii) most of those people are there for petty crimes (marijuana) and iii) the cost of keeping them there is far too high.

    I went to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and it says that in 2010 there were 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, of which approximately 18% are drug related.

    I was a bit surprised to see these statistics. it is possible I have misunderstood them or am missing the point.

    based on the above - even if we eliminated most of the drug related incarcerations, it appears it wouldn't really make much of a dent in the total cost of prisoners.

    Or is it possible that most of the ~5.6 million non-prison inmates (7.1 million stated in the article less 1.5 million prison) are drug related?

    Can someone help me understand what is the real reason for our high prisoner % and cost? From what I can see, it appears people being sentenced for petty crimes is not the answer.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply
  26. Robert Gosney

    I am a retired career prosecutor and handled hundreds of cases involving marijuana. You seem to justify legalizing marijuana due to our overcrowded prisons. Well, in my State (California), simple possession of marijuana does not result in incarceration. Even sale or possession-for–sale of marijuana results in very limited incarceration, if any at all. Therefore, I do not believe that marijuana now being illegal is the reason for prison overcrowding. How about finding out how many incarcerated prisoners are in custody on charges pertaining to marijuana?

    April 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    • Hootz

      You would think because of your former position you would know what's happening in your own country, Some places are better than others, NYC has the highest arrest rate for MJ anywhere in the US, they stop people on the street search them illegally then detain them when they turn out their pockets and have MJ, "Oh its in public so your under arrest"

      April 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  27. james

    the prision population expolsion is in response to china's two party labor system in that the corps over here aretrying to make a second class of citizen, the felon, a slave to privatized prisions where labor is forced and you do not get paid properly.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  28. vonlet24

    Reblogged this on What a Dey, Oh! and commented:
    My perfect would include having an impact on the conditions of confinement in our county, including the "condition" of over-population. With private prisons becoming a fast-growing industry, the problems so many incarcerated people are facing are being pushed into a realm of secrecy. Thank you to Mr. Zakaria for reminding me where some of my passions lie.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  29. Frederick Ray McKoy

    This is a deep and serious problem in America. In the mid 80's Americas demanded tougher crime laws resulting in the restructuring of the sentencing and the eliminating of prison rehabilitation programs.
    The American citizenry excludes EX-CON from thousands of jobs causing them to lose hope and return to crime. The word EX-CON is a carries with it a very negative and untrusting mean in itself. Even if the offense is 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years old, limiting the person’s abilities to work and support them self and/or their family for the remainder of their life even though they have severed their time in prison and paid their debt to society as reinstructed by the judge.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  30. Dave

    I smoked for a few years as a kid than went 30 years without smoking anything. Than I got MS, Yup they have presciption drugs to manage the pain, I take oxycontin for pain most addictive thing I've taken in my life and that is something at this point in time my doctor said I would have to be admitted to handle the withdrawl if I was ever to stop this drug. They also give me Baclofen for muscle spasams that get so bad my legs quite working yet when I go into some kind of remission where this don't happen I just can't stop taking it without serious side effects and this is just a muscle relaxer on steroids. I thought when other people suffering from MS told me how much better smoking would control the pain and spasams they were crazy but I gave it a try and it works better than any of the meds I mentioned and the others I also take. The great thing is I can just stop without a single side effect, no withdrawl and no craveing for more. I'm lucky enough to live in a state that it is legal went got my card which the state gladly took, but low and behold our state has those prosecuters that think they need to make a name for themselves and twist every little word they can to make it illegal as they can. If your in a public office taking tax payer monies as your pay who by the way voted the medical use in than quit or do as the people did and get it put on the ballot and let the people once again vote. I do realize that even with the law there are people who abuse and try to profit off mostly the people who are truely sick, but you never see where they go after these people usually you see someone who has a couple to many plants. It should be taxed and regulated like the businees that it has become. I guess when the new drug Sativex becomes legal here that is made from actual Cannibis Plant that it will be ok for people to take just because a big Pharma company came up with it. That one drug, Sativex, will prevent the legalization at the federal level just because of the money Pharma gives big goverment. I guess it is better to give money to a private company than to help our own country out first.

    April 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
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