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. beforus

    Even GOD only gave 10 commandments. Well when the politicians die I am sure they will finally find out what pain is about. Why do you think we are in Afghanistan? The poppy over there have never seen growth over a 100 fold since we arrived there. Something has to fund our corrupt govt. and CIA. People is prison for smoking a joint. It just shows you our politicians are brainless and just have their pockets open for corrution from lobbyists.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • rlowens1

      No, they are not brainless. They are diabolically brilliant in the execution of their devious plans.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
  2. hmmmn

    they really need to make it legal most people who write here need to smoke something and chill out.
    gonna kill each other with all this hate..

    April 2, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • rlowens1

      This is an important issue and I feel passionately about it – but, not violent about it.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  3. krm1007

    I will comment on juvenile perspective. The laws are insensitive to the preventive side of crimes. Our lawmakers are out of touch with reality. Our law implementers i.e. police are trained to deal with swat like operations and handcuffing and putting the people behind bars rather than preventing what could lead to crimes. Judiciary is too slow and bureaucratic. Schools, police, towns, judiciary are not communicating with each other. The private sector has hands tied by regualtions. Therefore jail all. For lack of a better analogy, 9/11 is an example of what is wrong with USA. Let the problem happen and respond with utter force....guantanamo..i.e. kill flies with a stealth bomber.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
  4. Tom H

    My question is how would the health insurance industry handle legalization of marijuana ? Furthermore, if they could prove someone is using marijuana, would it give the industry reason to disqualify people from receiving benefits.Not sure so does anyone have a thought on this ?

    April 2, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Scott B

      @Tom H: Not automatically. The insurance companies can do whatever they want unless we pass a specific law against it. As an example, if a person quits cigarettes and goes to an electronic cig, insurance companies still count them as smoking even though the only ingredient the two share is nicotine which is not the primary cause of the long term health effects from smoking. So insurance companies could choose to not cover anyone that smoked weed. Doubt it would be a good business decision though.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  5. Insecurity

    I have it on good authority that the government is working on a plan not only to make some drugs legal, but make them manditory. This has the desirable effect of ending all this spiritedness and making the populace much easier to control.

    Life is good

    April 2, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • BioHzrd420

      Nice to hear... There are definitely some people on these forums that should smoke some and just chill.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  6. regular joe

    As one who has been there and decided I'd rather pay taxes.
    We need to be MUCH tougher on real crime and become libertarians on all other crimes. I could care less if you take drugs, as long as it does not affect me and mine. On the other hand if you are a pedophile, rapist, murderer, etc., you get sever treatment. And (again I speak from experience) you get the minimum required. Cots, beans an rice, etc. YOU put yourself in this predicament (prison). If you wanted a "special meal" or yard privileges you should have remained a free person (not committed the crime). Additionally, for other crimes (larceny, etc), when your time is up it should be up. Your record should be squashed and you should get all your privileges back. If you are not ready for that than you should be kept in prison.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  7. iron rabit

    Send all drug dealers to Russia they know how…

    April 2, 2012 at 11:07 am | Reply
  8. Pgawk

    We should not pick on people just because they commit crimes.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
  9. tom

    Another factor that adds to our prison population is that the drug war through Federal funding expanded police forces throughout the US. Even the smallest town is equipped with swat type vehicles and armament. To keep this money flowing to the police forces they had to show results and that is why the so many states want to stay firm on zero tolerance.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
  10. Person

    The only wrong note here is Robertson's claim that high incarcerations are a "liberal" problem. That's just rewriting history. Zero-tolerance laws are consistently a product of the right, not the left (which leans toward social solutions, retraining and education rather than knee-jerk incarceration).

    April 2, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
  11. iceload9

    California has figured out a way to legalize the use of marijuana but still keep it's prisons full. Instead of just making marijuana legal, they have this hoky medical marijuana. Thus some use it and others get arrested for it.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
  12. jack

    More propanda...Does anyone really believe that there is a huge amount of people in prison for having some weed. In most places you get a fine...Give me a break. Even if its legal the prison population will not change.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
  13. skip

    after reading some of these comments, i think we need more looney bins in this country. oh, and i'm for legalization of pot. and i'm not 20.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  14. WDinDallas

    Social issues beginning with a non nuclear family.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  15. Canadian

    In Canada possession is not an offence.
    When you put someone in prison for possession he stop to be productive for the country and when they get out of jail, i'm not sure they can find a job easily.
    Prisons are also expensive.
    Pot would be taxed if legal and criminality around would stop.

    Why do it easy when it could be complicated

    April 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  16. Keith

    The war on drugs is too good a racket for the CIA, FBI and the DEA. You will never stop it, just like the Industrial Military Complex. Killing our own for fun and profit is just the way America rolls.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  17. wjeri

    Because Black Americans do not want to work and get in trouble.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  18. Dave

    First. I'm not sure quoting Pat Robinson is really a quality metric. The guy has said some pretty crazy things in the past.
    Second. I would agree that we have "too many laws" we do. It's insane. You never see lawmakers "removing laws" they just make more without a good evaluation of the old..
    Third. You are probably partially right, on Drug laws. but what is the answer? There is a direct correlation to Drugs and other related crimes. It's something that needs to be strongly discouraged.. what are you going to do ? fine them? wont that just encourage more violent crimes like robbery etc? Give me a proven solution that works and I'll think it over.. but until then, current status quo must prevail

    April 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    • BioHzrd420

      Did you ever consider the fact that drugs and crime are correlated is that they are both outside the realm of regulation (i.e. the black market), not that drugs make people criminals. When alcohol was prohibited, alcohol and crime could very well be considered to be correlated, due to the fact that criminals now ran the show. Once prohibition is lifted, it's legal and therefore not profitable for criminals.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  19. billgme

    This should be a no brainer. The war on drugs and the cost has been astronomical. If you legalize marijuana and tax it there would be a huge infusion of revenue to gov't, you would open up prisons and there would be tremendous cost savings. The cartels in mexico would be essentially put out of business, like the gangs during prohibition in the 30's. Pat robertson is right and this should be an issue for the right wing to bring up. Increased revenue, cost savings. The cost would probably go down cause the big tobacco companies would market it like ciggarettes. j

    April 2, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  20. rickwh

    Our prison system is overly full because the U.S is a capitalist society and prisons are big business. In order to "feed the beast" we must imprison hundreds of thousands of individuals every year to keep it going. If punishment is achieved in the process of making a profit then it's considered a win, win situation. Otherwise, it's just business as usual.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  21. Onikami

    does anyone even fear imprisonment in america? if i were an asthetic monk it would be a perfect place to meditate. three squares aday, solitary confinement to contemplate the universe, brief stints among a violent population to further my disregard for worldy poss.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  22. zaglossus

    Prisons should be reserved primarily for those who would represent a danger if out in the wider world. Punishment and rehab should be secondary goals (in most cases there are other ways to accomplish these rather than just llock em up). And the deterrent effect of incarceration for some of these crimes is overkill.

    Zakaria and Robertson are exactly right here and this is a scandal of misplaced government priorities almost unknown to most Americans.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  23. Joink

    Better question would be, "Why isn't Eric Holder in the prison system?"

    April 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  24. Onikami

    capitolism+impoverished nation=incarcerated nation

    April 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      Actually American impoverished look like kings compared to the poor around the world, yet countless societies have almost no crime. Though lack of money can lead to crime, cultural behaviors usually have precedence. People try to always use poverty as an excuse for criminal behavior, but other cultures and their crime rates suggest otherwise.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  25. Willie12345

    Parents have failed to teach their children basic values concerning "right and wrong". The school system doesn't teach the children anything. Adults have failed to act like adults.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • Don of Iowa

      One has to ask then to your point, So? Not even sure how this relates to the story. Marijuana needs to be legalized and this ridiculous war of stupidity ended. The major reason marijuana was made illegal is because Mexicans used ot and to get the Mexicans out of the country it was made a dangerous drug. So when people make logical decisions why is this about parents? It is about people and understanding how stupidity in our politics has to change. It is more about how we need to stop all the stupid laws passed because of bigotry, such as the drug laws and even more recent the picture IDs laws. It is time we take a long look at anything put forward by the republican party who are the base party of most of the bigots and racists in this country. And it is time to make marijuana lega and stop the stupidity.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  26. Adam H

    In my experience it is always the people that really do not have a clue what they are talking about that are so against Marijuana. Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Parents should actually step up and parent their kids instead of letting their computer, TV and video games do the job. You almost never see the kid that always had a good parent around and was involved in sports and healthy activities get invloved with Marijuana or any other bad lifestyle choice.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • Don of Iowa

      Since marijuana is less harmful than alcohol with which I agree why do you consider this such a harmful choice and one parebts should teach their children to keep away from? So many of those close parents show them it is ok to use alcohol and to me that is even more harmful. Again this has NOTHING to do about parenting but about ending the hateful racism and bigotry in this country.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  27. Al

    If you break the law you should be in jail, if you murder or kill someone you should meet them 90 days after the trial, that will give the murderer 89 days to get their effects in order so that they can receive the needle. I'm sure that it will cut down on the population of prisons.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • Scott B

      It wouldn't. Murderers are only a small fraction of the prison population. Also, if your really suggesting anyone that breaks a law should go to jail....well...that's crazy.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  28. JeramieH

    I'm not sure I understand the problem.
    If you don't want to go to jail, don't do the crime.
    If you don't agree with the law, then lobby the government to change it.
    What else is there to discuss? Seems pretty clear to me.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
    • Scott B

      A minority with more money influences the governments to go against their wishes. Due to years of propaganda, legalization is not an issue most people will base their vote on, but many will refuse to vote for anyone for legalization. Basically, the same major problems with a democratic system that we always run into.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
      • Thor

        Kind of telling isn't it? People won't vote for a politician who wants to legalize marijuana. Why?

        April 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • JustaThought

      Wow, what Pollyanna world do you live in??

      April 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  29. Steve

    As we are aware that God do created the earth, everything that grow were evolved as according to His eyes. Everything we see that grow like trees, grass, herbs, weeds, tulips, roses, brushes, crab grasses,dandelions, etc ....even cannabis. Therefore, I do believe that God put cannabis for medical purposes. We should not turn our eyes away from these facts.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  30. Richard

    Prison keeps the unemployment rate lower.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
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