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. paulronco

    Hmmm.... incarcerating human beings for profit... sounds like a reinvented version of slavery to me

    March 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  2. Will

    "Americans make up just 5 percent of the world's population but account for 25 percent of the population behind bars. Why?"

    Because it's the only First World country (for now, at least) to have tens of millions of blacks and hispanics, with the expectation that those blacks and hispanics behave like civilized human beings. They seldom do, so into prison they go.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • gwtars

      Yet, whites are arrested at twice the rate that black people are, according to the FBI: http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_43.html

      March 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
      • Will

        Wrong - the only reason whites outnumber blacks in prison is because they make up 65+% of the population, and hispanics are lumped together with them in federal statistics.

        April 1, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  3. Paganguy

    Do not legalize marijuana. De-criminalize marijuana. Treat it like tobacco products (No advertisement allowed). Tax it.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • cannabis

      If you want it treated like tobacco then you want it legalized? Tell me this. Why do we need to be punished for using a plant that God himself gave to us?

      March 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  4. Pgawk

    One of the reasons we have a large prision population is that we believe in rehabilitation, and giving second chances even when the odds of success don't look very good. In some (but not all) other countries, there are social norms that help keep the crime rate in tow; and at the other end of the spectrum there are some countries where offenders of relatively minor statutes are simply and routinely executed. Mr. Zarkaria, unfortunately, seems to always make America look like the bad guy on the world's block. I suppose they pay him for taking that kind of stand, because it does create the kind of angst among readers that keeps them coming back to see just how outrageous his next statement will be. It's actually just a variation on what was once called "yellow journalism". Very unfortunate that this kind of "reporting" actually is profitable.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • jdoe

      You must be kidding. There are no rehabilitation programs in prisons. If anything, it's a place where people learn to become more hardened criminals in order to survive. And with a record and no chance of a meaningful when they get out, they're more likely to commit crimes again. The recidivism rate in America is sky high compared to other countries. Read a little about prison life in America.

      March 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • The Glider

      Pgawk, you've probably never been inside a prison of a major city, have you? You should. Rehabilitation is something that you read in a text book.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:21 am | Reply
  5. Mike

    Most people would support marijuana becoming legal. It ought to be. The only ones that want to keep it illegal are people with hidden agendas or paranoia's.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  6. Robrob

    Not getting the connection here. First it's implied the US has five times as many inmates because of marijuana laws (no mention about how other nations with similar laws fare), then there's a complaint about "liberals" passing laws that put more white collar criminals in jail. What exactly is the point of the article – there are too many white collar marijuana criminals?

    March 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • AO

      That was Pat's argument - that single paragraph copy-pasted from somewhere. I guess Fareed is more interested in the fact that we have a huge prison system with a strong lobby because of which the states pay lots of money and in return get their societies negatively affected.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
    • dustin

      we imprison based on the fact that prison are private companies making money and have lobbyist doing there job what can you not connect it is for profit i kive in oklahoma where nearly all the prisons are run by private and the penalty for personal use of marijuna is the most stiff make the connection its about money

      March 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  7. winstonsmith

    Why does no one ever bring up that most of the problems with the War on Drugs failing began when "God" aka Reagan was in office in the 80s? Why does he get credit for the fall of the SU while failings with the War on Drugs and allies we made to defeat the Russians (like bin Laden) are ignored? This is important, we must know our history.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  8. Sam

    Making money by keeping folks behind bars. Sure sign of a decaying society.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  9. 1ofTheFallen

    There are many ways to punishment other than expensive, life destroying prison. I think caining is a great punishment that leaves a very good impression that is not expensive and life destroying. Get caught for minor offenses and get a good caining. Get caught again and get a few more additional wacks.

    Other countries learned long ago that physical pain is a good deterant without costing taxpayers hugh sums and taking peoples lives away for years.

    I have never understood how it is more humane to throw someone in prison for years when some very harsh physical punishment can be adminstered and over with quickly. It might leave a mark but you have taken your punishment and can get on with your life after a few weeks or month.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • bark

      BAD NEWS, FALL GUY!!! Most violent criminals were abused as children. You beat the living tar out of a kid, and they grow up to be a low life just like you!!!

      March 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  10. mcp123

    "and every time the liberals pass a bill"

    While this issue is about the only thing Pat Robertson has commented on that I agree with it is however subject to the same revisionist history the entire right wing is guilty of. We "liberals" would not place laws on marijuana. In fact all drugs should be sold at state stores to anyone over the age of 18 who wants to pay for them and simply handed over with a warning. The government should tax the drugs and allow anyone with a license (after paying a license fee) to grow them. The only penalties (which should be financial) for growing without a license would be the confiscation of land and property

    March 31, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  11. klaas jan

    it is because americans have more blacks. if the prison system was better in african nations, then some african country would have the majority of the incarcerated.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • meemee

      From your name I know that you know about SA, Zim and other African nations. We don't get that news here but lies about how great Nelson Mandela and SA must be now. You must have read, "Into the Cannibal Pot," or have lived in SA. Sadly true is that blacks ruin everything everywhere they are or go, and Christianity makes whites believe they can fix it if they only take more blows "in his name."

      March 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  12. M C McBride

    Tax production, tax distribution, and tax consumption. It would be better if people were perfect, but they are not.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  13. morefunthanrhoids

    More touchy-feely liberal blather from the mental midgets at cnn. Theres more crap spewing from cnn shills than at a manure sales convention.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  14. Jeff

    One issue that has to be addressed in any legalization is to protect LEGAL USERS from their employers or potential employers.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  15. Mark

    But look who is filling the prisons. BLACK MALES. Many are behind bars on false convictions and can't get them overturned. I guess we need
    Gov. Hallery, he will release them. At least the killers, the worst offenders.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  16. jdoe

    You go in for MJ possession. You join a gang and learn to be tough in order to survive. With a record, you can't find a decent job when you get out. You become a hardened criminal. And the cycle repeats itself.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • Glenn

      I agree...

      March 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  17. Freedomrules

    Classic example of the concept of freedom in excess. True freedom is actually the freedom to have self control to NOT do everything you wish to. This interior order creates a society with exterior order that will follow morals, laws and live for the betterment of your fellow man. Freedom to do everything you wish creates slaves to yourself.

    Most of you probably won't want to hear this but the only basis for this moral code is a consciousness of God, otherwise there is no basis for following any moral laws. If you are just an animal then by all means behave like one. It's saddening to watch the dilution of our society where freedom "rules" and everyone is a slave.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • Orwell

      "Freedom is slavery."

      Gee, where have we heard that before?

      March 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  18. Chuck

    Yay, another "how bad America is" story and lecture from a foreigner.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  19. Dr. Bob

    This land of the free and home of the brave has gone nuts. NO one should be incarcerated with the exception of VIOLENT CRIMES– period. It serves NO purpose for someone to do time for a property or petty drug crime. Put them to work and set them straight. Three hots and a cot does nothing for society other than bankrupting it.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • meemee

      It does make sense to have a separate penal system and laws for drug offenders. Creating a system of lies about the harmlessness of "victimless" drugs like marijuana is not the answer however. Likely, it would be run privately, but it could work. I am from a family of doctors. My uncle once ran half way homes for alcoholics in California during the 60s and 70s until Regan and others cut the programs. I was around it a great deal because my father was involved in it also, as a business partner. It seemed to work well from my memories of the operation. Most people dried up and got their life together. Now these are called "rehab" centers, but they are for wealthy people. Most people with these problems aren't wealthy. These are the ones the end up in jail.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  20. Phyllis

    Our high numbers of jailed people include many minorities, most of them from dysfunctional families and neighborhoods. We have to fix those problems, not legalize drugs.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • meemee

      Where have you been? We've been fixing those problems for 50 years, but the more we fix, the worse the problems gets and the more it costs in dollars and socially. Maybe some people should look at the sort of cultures we embrace, the sort of people we make popular and our role models? And since we import the worst people from the worst societies, it stands to reason that we will have increased problems and more people in jail. More "Diversity" = More Crime." The proof is in our history.

      March 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  21. Mike

    You want to know why we have the most population behind bars... Because people in America and that come to America think that they can do anything they want even though it is illegal. Parents do not teach kids anymore the TV, Internet and their Friends do. As a country we have lost our morals. Prior to the early 60's maybe 70's people respected others yes there were bad people but it was not a rampant problem like it is today. Until we get back to a core moral value America is going to become the next China with the Government controlling all the cards, sneeze wrong and welcome to the forced labor camps.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Debussky

      You are correct; As a foreigner I can see America changed a lot over the past decades. I was in US during the 70's as a student , American back then were different; they were the " traditional " American; people with lots of self respect law abiding citizens , therefor much less crimes then nowadays, to say the least. Today, not any more.This has nothing to do with China or Russia, it is owing to the fact the core value of America has changed.
      The last scene of Planet of Apes would have told you where America stands now; it is FINISHED !

      March 31, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  22. Matthew Kilburn

    Never used drugs, including Marijuana, and never will.

    I recognize that the chemical properties of Marijuana make it considerably less harmful than other drugs....but my first-hand witness of users of marijuana shows that it clearly had dangers. I've seen good, promising people my own age (I'm a college student) start using it...and start using it more...and start paying less attention to school...and sure enough, they blow their future because they start spending too much time sitting around getting high. That isn't to say that Marijuana can't be used responsibly – only that far too many people use it irresponsibly to make it legal.

    If I could legalize marijuana for people, so long as they were able to maintain steady jobs and clean criminal records, so long as it didn't come between them and others...then I would. But we can't do that. And until we can, which is likely to say "never", then it should remain illegal.

    So ten years in a prison with murderers and thieves hasn't worked well at preventing people from using drugs. Ok. So why not establish special drug prisons? You put them out somewhere isolated, you keep the drug users away from the truly violent criminals, and after a debt to society has been paid (and using drugs DOES create a debt to society), then you can require mandatory treatment...all this on top of hard labor or other undesirable things that truly keep people off drugs.

    If a kid gets caught with drugs, require him to spend his entire next summer vacation in one of these drug prisons. He does the labor, misses out on the fun of summer, and hopefully learns his lesson.

    That fact that we haven't eliminated a problem entirely isn't a reason to throw up our hands and walk away from who knows how large a chunk of our population.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • jdoe

      The problem is that, as a business, the prison industry doesn't want to reduce the number of incarcerated. In fact, they logically want more "customers" in their system. They have no interest in keeping the non-violent away from the violent, or in rehabilitating people. That would be detrimental to their business.

      March 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Beth

      How are your criticisms against pot any different than criticisms that could be applied to alcohol which is legal? Would you put alcohol users in these same jails with the pot smokers? if not, why not? The only big difference I see is that drugs are illegal so buying pot unless it is grown somewhere locally could be giving money to drug lords, something to avoid doing–look at Mexico now thanks to our drug laws. We have helped create a horrible situation there and it is spreading here. I don't know the answer but prison time for possessing a joint isn't it. That's sickening to know people are in jail so long for something so minor.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Chasity

      I see your argument but the bigger picture is that it should be our choice to make. If we want to smoke pot that should be our choice just like if someone wants to light a cigarette or drink alcohol. If alcohol is legal it damn sure should be.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  23. Jeff

    Prison are full and America leads the world in this statistic because America is a country of laws and consequences for law breakers. those of you haven't traveled or lived outside the borders of America don't understand that in other countries being a victim of a crime multiple times is a common occurrence as many crimes go unsolved and criminals unpunished and become career offenders.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  24. The King

    Why does the US spend as much on "defense" as the rest of the world combined? Why do we spend the most money on health care (by 51%) than any other country, yet our heathcare system is ranked #34 worldwide?
    Once you begin to peel the layers of capitalism back, you find one commanality....Greed! Fueled by an ignorant, misinformed public and abetted by a rotten to the core political system.
    The real tragedy here is that the US citizenry, is for the most part, are decent, hard working, honest people. We deserve a government that represents us, not the corporate interests that have sucked the life out of this once great country.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  25. Phillip Goodwin

    The U.S. has more people in prisons than other countries and other societies because other countries and other societies haven't maintained country club prisons for their criminals to lounge around in. They simply execute them. Does Pat Robertson have any idea how many people Stalin executed? That's why there was no overcrouding in Stalin's Gulag.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  26. Max in NY

    if this is news to anyone...you're a noobie

    March 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
    • Jack

      Hipster.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  27. paulronco

    The "gateway drug" theory is patently junk science and has been definitely proven as such. There is no "magical substance" in marijuana that causes cravings for other substances that happen to be illegal at this point in time in human history. Marijuana use is a reliable indicator that the likelihood of experimentation with other drugs is higher than with non-smokers simply because it is illegal and thus found in the pockets of dealers who sell other substances along with it. Make marijuana legal and it will be no more a "gateway drug" than beer and cigarettes, which are also associated with a higher likelihood of experimentation.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  28. Mike

    I'm not surprised by these statistics. American culture is not one of professionalism, morals, and making decisions that are beneficial to society and its citizens. The failed liberal belief that "people are inherently good" and should be free to do what they want, and abuse the freedoms provided, is part of the cause. Kids are not raised in a manner that instills good values, work ethic, because their parents don't possess either anymore. They expect everything to be given to them by those that do the right thing, blame their problems on everyone else, and feel that they are above the law. They and their supporters will use these statistics to wrongly cry that we should relax our laws (e.g. drugs, illegal immigrations, traffic, etc.) instead of instill a culture that improves quality of life (so you won't need to escape reality with drugs) and respect for authority (including the law).

    March 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  29. Albert Friday

    The reason we have such a large prison population is because the other countries execute their felons.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
    • Greg Dowty

      What countries do that on a larger scale then America?

      March 31, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • paulronco

      This is a stupid argument and, if it were true, proponents of the death penalty would be loudly promoting it. The fact is, America executes a larger proportion of its citizens than any other country in the world, even China. China executes more people, but it has a much larger population. Proportionately, America is the #1 state-killer of its own citizens.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • bark

      The reason we have such a large prison population is because the more people you throw in prison, the more you get elected. Rudy Guiliani, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, George W. Bush

      March 31, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  30. Peter G. Hill

    It is time to decriminilize all drugs and stop jailing dead broke fathers for the crime of just being poor.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Mojo Jack

      Sure it'll create a temporary void to make some prison space for the Wall Street crooks. Don't count on the bed bugs in the extra bunks to be lonely for too long. The higher the capitalism, the higher the crimes, the higher the incarceration.

      April 3, 2012 at 2:59 am | Reply
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