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. Alec Campbell

    The majority of US prisons are not privately run and those that are privately run house fewer than 20% of all prisoners in the US. Moreover, private prisons are a response to not a cause of mass incarceration. You are correct to think that our incarceration rate is shameful but your claim that prisons as big business has caused mass incarceration is only slightly less ridiculous than Robertson's claims that liberals and white collar criminals are central to the mass incarceration story. You have found an important issue but failed to understand it.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • paulronco

      Those are a lot of spectacular claims of journalistic malfeasance coming from someone who conveniently offers no independent sources to back them up.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  2. Shawn Irwin

    This prison bill is coming out of our taxes, and it is another reason we are in debt up to our ears. "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America...than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height." America has become a fascist corporate plutocracy. Not only do they want to control their own population, they interfere in every other country in the world. A society should reward good behavior more than punish, but American society depends to much on punishment, and sooner or later we are going to end up like Argentina in the 1970's, and finally . . . . a revolution.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • Tired of Paying

      When the Revolution comes, I'm betting that Capitalism will still be part of the new order. Therefore I'm investing in Pitchforks and Torches.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  3. Greg Dowty

    Our prisons are over populated because Reagan created a false fear of "street crime." Tough on crime Criminal justice policies are still being implemented today even though crime rates have been slowly declining! Lets save the tough on crime policies for the people that actually are harming our society on a massive scale, WHITE COLLAR CRIMINALS......... The crime is in the suites, not the streets!

    March 31, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  4. cruisecontrol

    "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.... "

    What happens when you pass a law and there are no penalties specified for breaking that law? Answer: it becomes unenforceable. Does Robertson really think that only Liberals pass laws with penalties attached? This guy is delusional.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  5. Pali

    I ran a massage parlor & was sentenced to 3 years for pimping. Becuz mine was a non-violent crime I served 50% of my sentence. The girls float about going fr one massage parlor to another. They could come & go whenever they wanted. I served time @ San Quentin, High Desert, and California Correctional Center–3 moves for a year & a half sentence. EVERY prison I went to tobacco, marijuana, and meth was available. The prison system is a waste of tax payer's money. Prisoner's watch tv all day, do exercise in the yard, are fed, clothed and housed. Plus, the drug offenders can partake of drugs if they wanted to. The guards know it and the wardens do too. The legislators and judges should. What about you?

    March 31, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  6. Jason Glugla

    Because we are the greatest country in the world wherein if you get sick, you go broke and then die. To get an education, you have to go into debt for the rest of your life. But if you go to prison, you will get that healthcare that the rest of the world has.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  7. aztechx

    "The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year."

    << so sad

    March 31, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  8. dbski4it

    The war on drugs has failed because the federal government refuses to secure the US border with Mexico. Both the democrats and the republican presidents have refused to enforce the laws already on the books.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • paulronco

      That sounds like a good idea. Let's turn the entire country into a walled prison so that we can be free of the evil weed.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
      • Dave


        March 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  9. Peter Hernandez

    We are a nation of incarciration because we have laws for a nation to follow. Thank God for this country, which, while not perfect, is a model for many reasons to the rest of the world. The rest of world unfortunately cannot afford food and shelter for its citizens, let alone jails where they must feed prisoners....even if only dog food they may provide. I have never been in jail......I do not believe it is because jails are big business. And if they are, so are American-owned cigarette, alcohol, oil, tech, and many other companies in diversed industries. WE are world leaders in so many ways which help society. Stop knocking good 'ole USA. Celebrate that we live here. Not perfect, but envy to millions outside who wish, and would consider it a priviledge to reside here. Long live USA!

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


      March 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • Greg Dowty

      Peter that's the point!
      America has a huge rate of homlesness, starving, and people that fall below the pverty line and we are spending BILLIONS of dollars on not violant criminals......... The CJ system is using Banishment Laws, and Waste Managment style incarceration to combat the social problem of Poverty. Can't you see that this isn't working???? Why not free these people from our prison and put the money into social programs!

      March 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • paulronco

      Yes, long live the cheap slave-produced Chinese products that allow us to live in luxury for a little while longer until China pulls the plug on our unsustainable debt. You might as well be extolling the virtues of the Holy Roman Empire.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  10. JeffinIL

    Maybe you should change your name from Fareed to Mr. Obvious. Oh, wait, Bob and Tom are using that name in a comedy bit.
    Anyway, yeah there's a HUGE prison INDUSTRY in this country. DUH!
    'Bout time somebody noticed.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  11. Lucky Albright

    Mr. Zakaria,

    I liked this entire post until the last paragraph. Your reasoning for the outsized growth of California prisons versus colleges is that

    "Prisons are a big business. Most are privately run. They have powerful lobbyists and they have bought most state politicians."

    I don't disagree with what you said, but rather what you didn't say. In addition to lobbyists, the Prison Guard union (public-sector union) has used its outsized influence and resources to expand the prison culture of California government as well. Lobbyists and public-sector unions are both powerful special interests, and both have contributed to this problem.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  12. rabbit one

    dead serious – quit the foolishness, legalize weed which is less dangerous than alcohol – and free up the kids imprisoned – and end the "crime" associated with weed and even coke and crack – i guess i would only outlaw heroin – because you could die in one incident – but seriously free up weed for usage and sale – weed is healthy and it does not bother anybody – and i am tired of our kids being in jail because of weed – i dislike all the prejudice in this world, you know – look you got drunk fools crashing cars and murdering folks – and you be there all kinds of proud locking up good peoples who was caught with some precious weed in they pockets – that ain't right – my sweet friends

    March 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  13. Itsall Tuna

    It's a prison bubble. Big investment opportunity that is ready to collapse, too. It's all tuna!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  14. capnmike

    One of the biggest reasons for all these prisoners in the US is that we have more laws than just about anybody, and they are far more rigidly enforced. The "Land of the Free" is now nothing more than a myth and a buzzword.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  15. George manz III

    We throw people in prison for anything. There is no rehabilitation, they want to throw some people in a throw away the key.
    Remeber you only get one life and unless you do something extremely violent you should not be in prison.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  16. Forwardmarch

    We already have enough death, injuries, and property damage in this country from people drinking and driving – if we legalize marijuana we will see those numbers rise (no I don't have proof of that – but the logic follows) – add to that the auto insurance premiums will go even higher as well. I will support legalization of marijuana IF and only IF the punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana both increase up to and including the permanent lifetime suspension of driving privileges of the worst offenders.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • Tired of Paying

      The logic does NOT follow! In states that have liberal mj laws, studies have been done which show that as mj use rises DWI auto deaths falls, as people stop drinking and start smoking. Please do some research. There are even posts in this comment section detailing that fact.

      The logic goes more like this: Alchol companies realize that people will stop buying their products if mj becomes available, so they lobby against legalization. They've done the studies – because it affects their profits – so go take a look at their stance on legalization and then see where the logic follows!

      April 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  17. Matt

    Good article until you reach Zakaria's conclusion that "Prisons are big business. Most are privately run. And they've bought most state politicians."

    Wow! REALLY? The prison lobby has "bought" "most" state politicians?! Simplistic much?

    Zakaria's editorials are smug, one-sided, simplistic and pedantic. This is a really complex issue. You deliberately confuse legalizing marijuana with people in prison on all drug offenses.

    What percentage, exactly, of the prison population is in prison for marijuana possession? I would guess it's close to zero for people arrested without an amount considered intent to distribute/sell.

    This column is stupid.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • Ryan

      What's stupid is someone, like you, saying things that are completely and utterly incorrect and baseless because they are too lazy to look up actual information. 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug violations are serving time for marijuana offenses. In 2008, roughly 800,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses, out of 1,841,182 drug arrests in the United States; that's 47% of all drug arrests going to marijuana. And, the Department of Justice reported that 89% of those marijuana arrests were for simple possession, not manufacture or distribution.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
      • Matt

        Where did you get your stats, a Grateful Dead website? According to studies by Columbia University inmates incarcerated for marijuana possession is significantly less than 1 percent.

        March 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
      • Tired of Paying

        Matt: I believe his stats come from the Department of Justice. Yours come from a university which is most likely only local information. Either way, both of you need more than one source of information as bias is always a factor.

        April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  18. wrm

    So many people are behind bars _because_ it's a big industry? I'm going to go with something slightly more controversial, and that is that so many people are behind bars that it makes the industry big. Call me crazy.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  19. George manz III

    The people who want to throw people in prison should think twice. You have never been to prison and you don't know what its like.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  20. RolK

    Gee, our crime rate has been dropping and it is about the lowest I've seen in my 54 years on the planet. I wonder if putting the CRIMINALS behind bars has something to do with that. I think all bases sentence rules should be DOUBLED. Criminal humans can't be fixed; but them away!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • Greg Dowty

      It was dropping before the switch from rehabilatation to mass incarcerations policies! Also, crime rates are very trick because they are coming from police data which are very skewed! And even if crime rates are on the decline why does it make sence that more people are being incarcerated?

      March 31, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  21. Billy

    So what do we do to resolve this issue?

    March 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  22. rabbit one

    and you got the big piggy cops paid by the temporal and obfuscated govt to trip up the weed sales and make profits for the big businesses of the jails – and you got all the Ivy League sensationalism and false pretenses (folks playing fake and cruel) and suspension of real justice (they in their towers smoke the weed and keep us from smoking the weed) – what ever happened to common folk living heartily off the land – like French Revolution style (rising up to get what you want come hell or high water) – the common folk (so very brave) knowing what they need and getting it – instead in America you got the corrupt Ivy League dictating everything and enslaving the common folk by paying for the guns (the piggy cop folks) and making the laws with which to enslave and kill the common people (any fake and sad law in America like all the anti-woman laws for example so sad) – it is sick and sad – my friends – distrust those pretentious fools and trust nature which will never turns its back on you

    March 31, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  23. musings

    I discovered that when I bought a mutual fund, one of the companies which was a part of it was a prison company, Corrections Corporation of America.

    That meant that I was profiting from prisons paid for by taxes by lots of people who didn't own stock in it.

    The thing about corporations is they try and grow their profits. What better way than to have three strikes laws and lifetime incarceration for three minor crimes? Someone with two strikes shoplifts some flashlight batteries and he gets life. That kind of crap.

    I'd gladly give up that part of my mutual fund. I don't want to profit from others' misfortune.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  24. pitung

    Just wonder – of the 25% prison inmates, how many % are blacks and how many hispanics?

    March 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • Greg Dowty

      March 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  25. john

    Having spent 36 years in Federal, state and local law enforcement, I am convinced we are absolutely wasting our time enforcing illegal drugs. I have put a lot of major international traffickers in prison. It made sense I guess in 1973 when Nixon declare the War on Drugs but then was when top violators might be able to produce a kilo or two or heroin or cocaine per month and our criteria was that these people were close to being capital killers. But almost forty years later, it does not make any sense and we are spinning our wheels and spending billions with no deterrent effect plus millions of Hispanic drug traffickers descending on our doorways. And I am absolutely correct. Different society, different generation, and different standards entirely. Oh haters, please do not condemn me. My wife of almost 34 years is Mexican and my little daughter gets married on Cinco de Mayo, so we've hired a huge Mariachi band to celebrate and serenade the attendees. But for those of you who insist on answering, I've been there and done that and I am correct. Tons of arrests, prosecutions, convictions and prison time, but no deterrent effect...

    March 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • bark

      It helps when Law Enforcement veterans speak up. Maybe now these stinking politicians will vote to spend more money on rebuilding roads, schools, and factories, not prisons.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  26. Paul

    This is the most ridiculous post I have ever read even for Fareed. The prisons are not full of pot smokers. They are full of drug dealers, burglars, rapists, murderers, corrupt politicians and organized crime figures. Maybe we should just open the doors and let everyone out you idiot.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • lolwut

      I think the point is that millions are incarcerated for non-violent marijuana offenses, and anyone with half of a functioning brain and 6 seconds to think about it can see that it's a victimless crime.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  27. eviltaxpayer

    I agree that prisons are a big buisness, for state unions the ARE.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  28. bucky


    March 31, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
    • meemee

      Many people already live in a prison; it's called poverty. Now they're taking jobs from one population and giving them to another because it's part of a social plan. But they keep getting more criminals from the ones they are trying to get to take over the nation. Epic Fail and the cost is and will be high.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  29. Cheryl

    I guess it never dawned on anyone that it could be because we have become an immoral nation, with cultural rot as our only legacy to our children, have overthrown our Judeo-Christian foundation, are so full of sin and corruption that it's not even remotely funny, and have leaders that are both immoral and amoral, or that we worship a ton of false gods...athletes, show biz people, corrupt, lying role models ...and refuse to engage in work, education or religion, or that we have decided that technology and opinion will be our guides instead of faith, justice, honor, morality or honestly. Why we have even become a nation which allows, condones and legitimizes murder (abortion) and refuses to allow God or Christ to be spoken of in public. Oh, no, it could never be THAT!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • musings

      If we are such a rotten nation, it is because of the corrupt system putting away relatively harmless people.

      If you travel, you can see how intolerant we are relative to our European cousins.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • Glenn

      I agree with much of what you said Cheryl, and if we turned back to God as a nation things could change, but our laws also need an overhaul, someone could spend more time locked up for a bag of weed or copying a DVD than a Bank Robber.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Anon

      God is an abortionist. More than half of all fertilized eggs don't attach to the walls of the uterus and are flushed out during a woman's period. If it's good enough for god, it's good enough for me.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  30. cosmo

    Hell it should of been legal 40 years ago.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Glenn

      Up until 1860 it was legal, and many other drugs as well...

      March 31, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
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