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. us1776

    LEGALIZE and TAX NOW !!

    .

    March 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
    • yunesj

      Legalize and don't tax...

      March 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  2. us1776

    There has never been laws more ignored in this country than the prohibition laws.

    The majority of society has just totally ignored these laws and used their recreational intoxicant of choice.

    It is impossible to enforce laws that society ridicules and outright ignores.

    And what is worse is that it creates contempt for other valid laws.

    It is time to end all forms of prohibition.

    And deal with things like addictions in a sane manner through the medical and mental health systems.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  3. Gunny

    Already in the urban communities, every family has a mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, or cousin who is in prison, on parole, or have done time. We are unfortunately creating a new class of people. Sooner or later, they too will have a voice.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  4. david fuller

    here's a question I have- when you evaluate the differences between all countries and jail population- how do we evaluate the amount of persons ( no matter what color/gender ) – who are in jail that have not been raised by a set of parents?
    drugs or any other crime– how many are brought up in a 1 parent household over the last 50 years? we will probably find that all other countries, having a lower incarceration rate ( plus higher education rate, etc etc)- had a higher incidence of a father and a family life. hey, I am a democrat- but figures do not lie.
    who has done that analysis per country???

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

    One of my relatives got arrest for possession of a a few ecstacy pills at the age of 18. Got hit on three felony charges – possession – intent to sell (because he had more than one pill – and drug paraphernalia (a very small zip lock bag). Because of multiple felony counts being charged, the DA's office would not let him plead to a misdemeanor. He ended up with 2 years of close probation and about $3000 in fines. He could have got 2.5 years, plus the fine and probation If he had just one MJ joint on him, he would have faced a separate drug charge and received a minimum of 7.5 years. So for that one joint taxpayers are on the hook for $412,500 (7.5 years @ 55,000 per year). Add in the cost of probation and the much lower taxes paid by the prisoner due to being only minimally employed and we are pushing $500,000.

    The laws need to change. We are locking up way too many people, paying way too much in taxes to keep them jailed, and impairing people to never be able to be a full part of a productive society. The word "corrections" is a joke when used with the context of jail. Cesspool is a better term.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • John Schwendler

      Excellent letter, well-written, to the point. Communities are always looking to cut costs, but they equate changing the laws to less law and order, instead of more. Common sense must be brought back to our daily lives, the creation and enforcement of all levels of rules and laws. There are far too many citizens languishing in all confinement levels because of arcane drug laws, and laws related to the possession of illegal drugs. We are way behind the rest of the world. Confinement is big business, but we it allowed it to get that way. Prison should be for violent offenders and chronic re-offenders, financial crooks, etc. It is not a place to send citizens for minor infractions better corrected with fines and community service.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  6. outspoken

    Prison is big business like splendid little war here and there with Tax payers's money.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • private contractors

      private contractors have learned how to siphon money out of our government into their pockets quite well. more corrupt america and ruin people's lives to make a buck and feel important. a lot of this is training issues (patriarchy and the way we train our boys. girls too, but we know that boys have problems earlier in life trying to digest a lie, and that they are often lonely later in life because of it. go to mitworld video and watch Learning to See in the Dark. books are better). And that we have corrupt court systems and yes they make money off of it.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  7. GODZILLA1

    Prohibition didn't work; the war on drugs hasn't worked. Morality cannot be legislated!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  8. Luther51

    "...every time the liberals pass a bill – I don't care what it involves – they stick criminal sanctions on it."

    Liberals? Sorry, Pat, somebody's weed smoke has you confused. It's conservatives who like to outlaw everything and toss people in the slammer.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
    • us1776

      I laughed my a$$ off when I read that phrase. Pat obviously has not seen the thousands of laws that these rightwingers have put on the books. Including all the ridiculous "Stand Your Ground" laws which enable anyone to commit murder with impunity.

      .

      March 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. The difference between immunity and a defense is that an immunity bars suit, charges, detention and arrest. A defense permits a plaintiff or the state to seek civil damages or a criminal conviction.

        April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  9. us1776

    We have established a whole MASSIVE business in the United States known as Prisons-For-Profit.

    Their whole Fascist business plan revolves around incarcerating MORE people in the U.S. not less.

    Private ownership of prisons needs to be outlawed immediately in every state in the Union.

    .

    March 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
    • George

      Yeah, pathetic, a healthier drug than alcohol is illegal because of recent tradition... again, pathetic.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  10. John Schwendler

    Eighteen year olds are routinely arrested here in Maricopa Co. for minor infractions such as possession of alcohol or being drunk in public (not DUI). Instead of writing them a ticket and or calling a cab for them, we arrest them, transport them, photograph them, fingerprint them, type a report on them, issue them a jail outfit, give them a quick medical check, hold them for an initial hearing in front of a judge, and then, maybe then, release them so they can come back to court again, to pay a fine. It's a racket that keeps the law enforcement, jail custodians, and legal communities employed. It has nothing to do with common sense, or justice. If we issued tickets for these minor offenses, jail/court/probation traffice might drop as much as half, and that would just KILL the economy. Couldn't have that. Bunch of lawyers running around, looking for work to support their mortgages.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
    • musings

      That's horrible. Where I live, this kind of thing never happens to our pampered teens. I live in a community which is upper middle class in Massachusetts. It was the same story in New Jersey, where my cousins lived and smoked their pot without ever falling afoul of the law.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  11. mikebo

    I agree 100% that prison is a big business.If you have been in a fed prison you could she for yourself.I know from experience.How do you keep pot smokers in prison and turn out murders and molesters.Now how hard would it be if the
    United States and Mexico together to track down the drug lords.If we go half around the world to fight enemies we can't go across the street into Mexico.We are the problem as well as Mexico.Regulate the pot business like alcohol.You get caught smuggling pot make their sentences and punishment be as bad and hard as possible.Use the money from sales to help pay for drug treatment of addicts and fight the cartels.No market can't sell it.Pretty simple? I'm a former pot dealer.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  12. Dale

    When a person excepts thay are a criminal because thay smoke weed its easyer to except real crime.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  13. erich2112x

    It's just common sense.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  14. jimbo

    I guess ya all think- if a Nuke is comming ur way- thares enought time to kiss ur butt good-by! Right!? Keep dreaming ya bunch of butt holes!!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  15. Kreece

    Comparing our incarcerated to other countries incarcerated is dumb. It doesn't mean we have MORE lawlessness nor necessarily stricter laws, but it might indicate that we ACTUALLY enforce laws or less bribe-able police?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  16. reneg28

    America has gone off the rails!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  17. 1gadawg

    nothing but supply and demand – if the idiots would quit committing the crimes, the jails would be empty....

    March 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  18. yunesj

    I don't agree with Pat Robertson on everything, but he is justified in his apathy for marijuana use and his concern for over-criminalization. He supports this with a few statistics and suggests a reason, "every time the liberals pass a bill – I don't care what it involves – they stick criminal sanctions on it."

    It's strange how Fareed Zakaria, after "siding" with Robertson, seems to co-opt Robertson's argument in the last paragraph, with an unsubstantiated, neo-liberal "[Prisons] have bought most state politicians."

    Prisons have bought most state politicians? What? Is there any proof of this? In California, at least, the people voted to outlaw gay marriage and keep marijuana illegal. Are you sure it's not... the people wanting to vote on how other people live?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  19. JustSayNo

    Or... could it possibly be that we have a high proportion of law-breakers that most other countries? Answer: Yes.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  20. charlieshen

    Too much freedom that comes with such a low price tag attached is the reason that so many are in US prisons. Big business yes, but look at how much money is raked in from fools trying to win a shot at 640 million by the govt. I would bet that over 100 billion in lottery ticket prices was made as profit with just that one form of GAMBLING, which in itself is a huge consequence of lax laws in all states nowadays!!!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  21. Tim Rigney

    I realize that "Legally" this is a flimsy argument since cigarettes are legal, but don't forget that marijuana causes cancer and destroys your lungs. Don't lie to yourself; smoking marijuana DESTROYS your lungs.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
    • Hootz

      Thats not an argument for keeping it illegal... You don't need to smoke weed, you can Vape (Which is fine for your lungs) you can cook with it and make cookies, or popcorn, or bread, or anything really. You can make milkshakes yum. Ice cream, Candy even. But really it doesn't cause cancer nor does it do as much damage to your lungs as cigs... Not to mention the air outside is probably worse than the weed smoke 😉 please try again your arguments are invalid

      http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page4

      http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/307/2/173.short

      April 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  22. ziggy

    The prisons have nothing to worry about if they legalize pot, they will be filled with people busted for driving high.

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

    Imagine a doctor and nurses high on pot in the OR:

    Doc: "Whoa dude I think I just dropped a purple bong in the left ventricle"

    Nurse: "Hehehe...nah that was just a condom where I kept my stash"

    March 31, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
    • Larry

      yeah, 'cause docs never drank themselves into oblivion and then wondered into an OR.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  24. Tim Rigney

    Consider this: Smoking marijuana is illegal – PERIOD. Yet those in jail for it have chosen to break the law and suffer any possible consequences. If marijuana were made legal, at least a fair portion of those people would be in jail for something else. They're not in jail for smoking or dealing marijuana; they're in jail because they have no regard for the law.

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

      We aren't a nation formed on obeying the letter of the law when that law is stupid and tyrannical.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
      • Tim Rigney

        "Nation" means an organized system of behavior based on an agreement. Part of that agreement is to follow the laws, and to change them when they need to be changed.

        March 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  25. rmtaks

    The baby boomers have done everything in their power to disembowel the millenials. Voting against universal healthcare for us while we pay THEIR social security/medicare and drown in student loans. Locking us up for drug offenses. Breaking the economy with their greed then calling us freeloaders because we're at the bottom of the hill when the s**t roles downhill. Meanwhile we're the ones who actually make their companies work because we know what the hell we're doing with technology. We should just refuse to do any IT for their companies, form our own, and let them sell fruit next to the road for a living.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  26. Big Ron

    Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.It never will be legalized in America because too many people with power are raking in big bucks on the black market selling it.Where is an Elliot Ness when you need one?The other problem is that there are too many corrupt politicians that will make sure it stays illegal.It's all about the money.As usual.

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

    The Criminal Justice system is the largest job creator in America, from the arresting officer to the prosecutor to the judges, court officers, correction officers and vendors who supply prisons with supplies. Just imagine if marijuana was legalized, arrest rates would plummet which would cause many people to lose their jobs. America is the only country who depends on imprisoning one segment of our population to keep other parts of our population employed.For that reason alone marijuana will not be legalized.The best thing that happened for the CJS was the harsh drug laws and mandatory sentencing. It's sad but it's our system works.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  28. EM

    Just face the facts people.. Only the US Govt can kill or harm you (9/11 false flag, war, draft, reverse economic recession draft, police brutality, ect...). Buy a hydroponic kit, grow your own, if the police kick your door in just grab your 12 guage and rejoice for those around you who transform into the force.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • Stevan

      Its funny because people like you who complain about the government are also the ones dependant on the government..welfare, subsadise utilites, section 8 housing, food stamps..hypocracy?

      March 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  29. Stevan

    We have a large population because we have the most efficent anti crime system in the world. We have a large population because...gee people break the laws? We have a large population in prison because prisons are glorified retirement homes, free food, free bed, free roof over your head, free utilities, free games, free education, free health care etc. We also have a larger population then other countries because many countries either execute for drug offenses, see Africa, Asia, Middle East...and we have the most laws on the books to violate. Oh and when you compare our prison poulation to other countries with equitable populations were are all about the same, save for China. As twisted as our government is it is also one of the few that actually enforce laws and is not subject on a regular basis to bribes. Other countries dont "COUNT" work camps either, can we have work camps? Will the ACLU just roll over?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  30. Sampa

    I am Brazilian and I can't tell how glad I am that U.S handles criminals the way it does. I feel safe in here, something I can definitely not say about my country.
    If part of the population is behind bars, it is so because they deserve it.
    Look at Mexico, look at Brazil, look at Crackland in Sao Paulo, this is what happens when drug is liberated. Do you want that in U.S?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
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