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. Jerry

    While it's nice to blame "big business" for everything – didn't anyone notice the other CNN front page story? Ya know, the mass movement demanding someone's incarceration?

    Wonder who's sponsoring Trayvon Martin's family....

    March 31, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • abduhl

      Bingo – spot on.

      March 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Copy and paste to "justice for Trayvon Martin" Facebook.com

      Thanks, this will be good campaign material. Expect a call from the team sometime soon. Comparing the murder of an innocent teenager to smoking a joint?

      March 31, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  2. creative36

    Humans need to dismantle the monetization system and go to a free based societies. Remove land ownership. And all goods should be borrowed like library books. Food, water, energy, medical care and housing should all be free.

    Humans should ditch electing an alpha male to lead. We are not monkeys anymore. We do not need representative government anymore. We can represent ourselves. We have the Internet to voice our opinions.

    Human civilization should be based around education, technology, innovation and creativity. Once humans our challenged to innovate instead of working to by shiny boxes to drive around in and big boxes to live in humanity will blossom into something unbelievabley special.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Proof?

      Every recent example of organized society being left without government has resulted in gangs of rapists and murderers taking over. Yes your ideals would be an ideal for human society but face it the majority of the worlds populace are little more than angry chimps whimpering for more food whilst breeding like rabbits.

      March 31, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
      • creative36

        It is proven that people that are educated do not breed like rabbits. People don't want to be greedy or selfish. People want to belong to something more and be involved. Give people all they need and they will want to contribute to a whole.

        March 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  3. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Truly an eye opener of an article.

    THANKS TO YOU PAT ROBERTSON !!!!

    Thanks to Mr. Zakaria for COPYING IT FOR ALL OF US IN THE LIBERAL MEDIA who would have otherwise missed it.

    You are TRULY GREAT at SKIMMING OFF from other published material, adding little bit of your own and making it into YOUR OWN STORY......

    We hope your next story will NOT be on RACIAL BIAS on crack cocaine and powder cocaine which indeed is a fact that most Americans are already aware of and has been largely rectified under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

    We are also looking forward to your next story linking the HOODIE & HIJAB in the Trayvon Martin and Shama Alawadi cases to portray Americans as inherently racist.......in line with your agenda!

    March 31, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  4. abduhl

    This sand niiigger doesn't seem to understand that the bulk of our prison population are his 'brothers' who are there because they are parasites and belong in prison. His brothers commit the bulk of the violent crimes and drug deals ergo they are the bulk of the prison population. His country's prison's contain fewer criminals because crime is their way of life. If you don't like it here in America – Get out – you won't be missed and our welfare roles will likely drop.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  5. anon

    I can't believe I agree with Pat Robertson AND Fareed Zakaria at the same time, I dislike the thoughts and opinions of both very much. However, prisons are big business and a big problem. We lock up more per capita than any other country, INCLUDING the paranoid dictator / communist countries. Hopefully people will begin to realize that we "free" Americans actually live in one of the most oppressively policed, monitored, taxed, and regulated countries in the world. And with the passage of new laws like NDAA, Enemy Expatriation Act, HR247, NDRP, our government has begun the secret surveillance of it's citizens. We're more closely monitored than we monitor al-Qaeda for pete's sake. How much longer until it's illegal to speak out against the government? I mean with HR347 you're not allowed to protest where Secret Service MIGHT be in a near future event. It's about time to leave this country.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      I absolutely agree that we should take a real hard look at sentencing guidelines and crimes.

      But when it comes to NATIONAL SECURITY we should never let our guard down.

      Radical Islam remains the #1 threat to America......the FBI and CIA and every INFORMED American knows that too well.

      March 31, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  6. Kenny'sGirl

    As the adult child of an alcoholic father and prescription drug addicted mother with a sibling who was addicted to both I can tell you I found peace and security for the first time in my life when I married my pot head husband. My family looted the college fund I'd built up for myself to fund their addictions. I was 17 but I worked any time I could just to get out of the house. By comparison last year my hubby bought me the 40,000.00 truck of my dreams, 1/2 down, the rest on his good credit. Growing up I was physically, emotionally and verbally abused while my husband has never been anything other than loving. True, no Twinkie is safe when he smokes but I am. A perfect world would have no drug use of any kind, but there would be no war, no hate, no prejudices etc. I say go Pat – legalize pot!

    March 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  7. Tom

    I did not read all the comments but another consideration is if we lessen the punishment or even legalize it to some extent we will also take away a lot of the problems with the drug cartels in Mexico and the problems along the border.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  8. Scandalous

    Incarceration has become a business nowadays.......it's only a matter of time before its entrenched in the system that a "privatized" facility needs more prisoners to make a profit and incarcerating Americans turns into a very lucrative way for corporate prisons to meet the bottom line......and the way our politicians are in Big Businesses pockets, this will be a norm

    March 31, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  9. Nodack

    We had a judge busted fairly recently for being paid by a private prison company to send more people to their jails because they get paid per prisoner and a full prison is a profitable prison. Next we will have them doing slave labor and we can just put everybody in jail and make iPhones and Droids in the US with our prison labor.

    That sounds lIke what our forefathers envisioned for America.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  10. Han

    Our government has to spend $50,000 per inmate per year? No wonder they want to be criminals! They probably can't make $50,000 a year outside of prison. Why not go to prison and have someone spend $50k of care on me every year?

    March 31, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  11. farmdevil

    I'm all for this legalizing marijuana, but I think it's quite ridiculous that Robertson implicates the liberals in this. The war on drugs was completely a Republican thing. Now I'm not saying liberals don't carry on with the same dumb laws and sure we have too many laws coming from all sides, but our love for incarceration and the war on drugs in particular is really primarily due to Republican policies.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  12. Tina

    I have worked for the government for over 20 years. I am married for over 30 years. 2 kids. I have a college degree. I am considered a subject matter expert in my field. I have paid off my home – I own it. I have a credit score in the 800"s.
    I speak 2 languages. I contribute to disabled vets. I have traveled to over 40 states. I rescue homeless dogs. I have never been arrested or in prison. And guess what everone ? I have smoked pot for over 35 years.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  13. ludvig

    America has become a police state. I go home to visit my parents in Missouri from my job in California. I'm in my hometown of 250 people on a pothole road (my mom told me to go pick up my dad). I'm pulled over by a Highway Patrolman. I'm 3 blocks and one railroad track from the state highway. I don't even remember seeing a cop in my hometown when I lived there. The cop says "Open your trunk". I do. Four days later I'm driving to the town where I went to High School, population 2000, I'm pulled over by another Highway Patrolman who says "Open your trunk." Yeah there looking for drugs because I have California license plates. I come back to California. My doctor tells me to lose weight or get diabetes. I decide to lose weight by riding my bicycle and walking. A cop passes me when I'm legally riding a bicycle through a residential area at 9 mph. The cop makes a U-turn and comes back and takes my picture. I called the cop headquarters and told them what a bunch of losers they were. Did they thank for giving them a clue? No 2 weeks later, while out walking, they put a decoy car in my walking path trying to get me to steal it. It's parked on the wrong side of the road, the side I'm walking on, pointed in the direction in which I am walking with the engine running and the driver's side door blocking the sidewalk, like my dad would lay hoopnets out in the Missouri River to catch fish. I'm not a fish. My IQ is 136, the same as Bill Gates. This is followed up when I'm walking laps around a park I see a senior citizen volunteer hiding behind a truck. He thinks I'm going to steal something from an open garage door. They can't me to steal anything, so they say "Let's try drugs." I get up one morning and perfectly centered on my driveway 5 feet out in the street is a bag labeled "Medical". I suppose they think I'm going to find medical marijuana in the bag and take it in the house and smoke it, so they can kick my door in and shoot my basset hound in the back, like they did to the mayor's black labs in Maryland. I tell my wife "Don't touch the bag, it's a police plant." She tells me I'm paranoid, but gets in the truck with me and we drive a block down the street where the guy whose job it is to monitor the bag in his police car positioned right where the road starts to bend. If you stood on the bag and I told you to point where you'd hide the cop, you'd be pointing right at him. That's the truth. A 14 gallon blood donor and retired Nuclear Engineer who has never been in trouble with the law, only harassed by those idiots.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  14. Petrified_republicans

    All of this keeps the rest of us in civilized western countries away fri the mess you have there in the Us. Man it's scary even flying over your land. Definatley not land
    Of free

    March 31, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  15. dat cpa dude

    pot-smokin' cpa here...to all you folks who think that your motivation automatically has to go out the door if you smoke pot...you'd be wrong. Wouldn't recommend kids mess with it until they're college-aged. Whether we accept it or not, our future is our own. You can find the lazy folks smoking weed, but go to any college town and you'll also find the curious, inquisitive types with ambitious goals smoking a bowl of good weed and getting ever so engaged in their work. I smoke nice exotic stuff because one day, God smiled on me and I met my current connection. Prior to that, I had to venture into the hood because I didn't have any friends that smoked. I gave them $20 and they give me about $5 worth of the crappiest stuff you've ever seen and kept the rest for their own habit. These are/were dangerous people.

    Bottom line, you folks on the right with all the liberty talk...I'd like the liberty to buy weed from a provider of my choosing who has had the liberty to be the best weed farmer they can be...yep, i'd like me some liberty. "Nope" you say? Well, then I'll just take it. Let's ramp up our child predator cops and leave me at liberty to smoke a bowl of purple kush and get back to my yard work.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  16. sugarendra

    Zakaria knows,for example,that India has a huge prison population but its statistics of such population is pretty poor and inaccurate.Must be the same with China.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  17. Broker

    I wonder why CNN or the other big news companies did not cover an entrapment of US soldiers wanting to train and fight along with the Zetas in Laredo, TX. Gun battle and 1 soldier killed as the other three were apprehended, big story right? This is spill-over violence that is starting to affect every level of society, yet we are more concerned so many articles that do not define our lives. Mariguana is just one drug and is not mariguana that these wars are fought for. These wars are for control of the country and the distribution rights for meth and coke... mariguana? Nobody cares about in Mexico.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  18. Kenny'sGirl

    My alcoholic dad and pill addicted mom beat me and stole my paychecks when I was 17 living in a rented rat hole trailer and saving for the college I never made it to. My pot head hubby worships me, works 40 to 60 hours a week and bought me a 40,000.00 truck last year that sits in the drive of the home we own. True, no Twinkie is safe when hubby smokes but the world is not a perfect place. God bless you Pat – legalize pot!

    March 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  19. steve

    If legalizing it in order to curtail the drug trade from Mexico helped, I would be all for it.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  20. ALLAMERICAN

    Fareed, The system is broken. Legalization is not the issue, regulations is the issue and government dont feel compelled at this time for another 100 years or perhaps more.

    Knowing the above will never be solved. I think we need to to change our strategy of privatizing prisions and rather outsource the criminals to cheapest 3rd world countries which will cut our costs by 3/4th and meanwhile the bad blood is thousands of miles away.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  21. cannabis

    In the entire history of the usage of the plant cannabis there has never been a single death from an overdose. Do you people think this plant was just created???its been around for however long plants have been on this earth. God gave us this plant and its made illegal? Hahaha its outrageous how corrupt the system is. As soon as this country started straying away from its fundamentals its only gone downhill. Once this country decided to have a larger goverment there's only been problems. We're stuck with two political parties who are actually very similar and they're all in it together running the show

    March 31, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  22. jwstrange

    The poll should have the option "decriminalized", which is not the same as legal, but is a more accurate description of marijuana's status where its possession for individual use is tolerated.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  23. Aaron

    For the most part, don't care that Robertson wants to blame liberals for senseless incarceration levels. If that's what it takes for him to get on board, then so be it. A part of me finds it irritating that he thinks liberals are the ones who want to criminalize everything because, after 40 years of watching politics, I know darn well who always cried "get tough on crime" the loudest. And it wasn't the liberals!

    If it was liberals, then it wouldn't be big news that someone like Robertson is advocating pot legalization. All through the 80's and 90's all I heard out of the right was, "build more prisons!", "three strikes your out!", "get tough on crime!", "mandatory sentencing!", "win the war on drugs!", "just say no!" and the like. That was all right wing doing. They got just what they asked for. Now they look around at the disaster of one their policies and they want to blame liberals for it.

    But, like I said, if blaming liberals makes him sleep better at night and allows him to see the underlying problem, then so be it. Blame the evil liberals and legalize it already!

    March 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  24. dc

    Maybe it's because we don't shoot or behead most of them.......

    March 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      good point!!

      March 31, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  25. Mark

    According to the FDA 106,000 die from prescription drugs. Approximately 100,000 die from alcohol, 443,000 from cigarettes including second-hand smoke. That is a year. Compare that to 10,000 for all "illegal" drugs combined. What do the first three have in common, you do not go to jail unless you harm another and they all are taxed by the government. The government hasn't figured out how to tax a weed.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • cannabis

      Its actually not a weed. Its a flower

      March 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  26. dc

    Believing Fareed or Donald Duck...... Tough Choice..... They are about even in expertise on soooooo many subjects....

    March 31, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Reply
    • .

      How dare you make such a statement!!!!!

      Donald Duck is much smarter.

      You take that back right now or I'll report you to the moderator.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  27. fwswisher

    Our extenal wars are small compared to Viet Nam and even more so to the world wars – so now this so called drug war starts to look much more absurd, as it should. Let's stop the pointless fighting with ourselves and start the healing.
    We have a cultural addiction problem. The hypocrisy of not even regulating tobacco as it is 1000's of times more harmful than any other "drug" . By keeping an almost totally harmless substance (Marijuna) illegal what is gained? We are addicted to oil, while we are the country that could so easily create a sustainable energy infrastructure. And our addiction to fiat currency which makes money the goal and in the process has lost track of the actual value of life.
    Fareed's take clearly shows how the direction our culture is headed is not sustainable or desirable.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  28. Roflophicles

    Welcome to the Prison Industrial Complex.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
    • .

      I hope your wife or daughter doesn't run into one of these innocent victims of the prison industrial complex in a dark parking garage.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        The drama!

        March 31, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  29. Listen

    I hope you people reading this stuff are taking notice- in 1970 US had 350,000 prisoners, we now have 2.5 million- the population has doubled. This is nothing less then a quiet holocaust and our government are as evil and rotted as any ever, to perpetrate this horrific ordeal, on the citizenry of our country- because we profess to be so pure and moral. Every person that goes prison, life is ruined- family is shamed and destroyed – they and they're are marked and treated like lepers as we have all criminal records on the internet. Every prison incarcerated is a human being, that god made in his image- with feelings and heart and soul- and mother that loved him, and family that destroyed forever. Remember that judge in PA, taking bribes to throw kids in prison for long terms for no reason? Do you know how long it took catch him?

    March 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      If you do not like living in America, go home to Syria, Iran, Iraq with the other islamic ca ca raisers babbling ca ca in this discussion.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  30. Old Man

    What I find most interesting is a large majority of people are willing to debate at such subjects as pot. I grew up in the 60's and 70's. I know all that culture first hand. Not that I have partaken in decades, but know it nonetheless. If only half the people in this response section cared even a twinkling for our gmint doings, the inevitable economic meltdown, or anything of that nature, something might actually get done. But people want to argue about friggin pot. Go figure. Ask any plumber, "stuff" runs downhill. The true arguments should be directed at the upper levels. The rest will fall into place...eventually. Just a thought.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      You must take other drugs also?

      March 31, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
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