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. Patricia Haplern

    I am not amazed by these *not so scientific facts* but I do believe them. Its been happening for the past 20 years or so.
    My son is an example of worthless judgements. He and exgirlfriend were having an altercation in public and they were both arresteed. They didn't search him until he was at the jail and the found what amounted to a joint in his possession. Of course at government facility, its a fellony to have any drugs or paraphernalia.
    He has TBI and metal rods in his back. Accident that he had in very early 20s. He is now 37 and the use of cannabis helps him with the pain and also makes his personality better, without it he's mean, sullin and very forgetful. Which is who I deal with everyday.
    The reason for that explanation: he is on probation still due to his occational use, he slipped up on pee test and the arrested him on the spot went of to the local penal system and spent 6 months in custody. Still paying probation costs and 35 dollars a month for someone to write on a piece of paper and shuffle him through.
    It also amazes me the size of the office that houses the PP. 40 offices and 35 in use with only have of the staff there at one time.
    Got a little long winded but I'm just one example in thousands of the same. Wasted money , time, community resources, and as was said made him into less desireable employee due to one joint.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  2. Ryan

    I really have never seen a valid argument for weed being illegal. Almost all the people who oppose it use it very inconsistent logic. People often point out how it can make people lazy and have a negative effect on lives. Well so can a ton of other things like alcohol, tobacco, prescription meds, and half the ingredients in our food today. When it comes to violence and getting behind the wheel on substances weed is basically in last place. So if you want to make all that other stuff illegal I still disagree but at least you would be consistent. I believe living in a free society means you can put stuff in your body that isn't good for you if you want. I mean if you've drifted to the right of Pat Robertson on an issue you might want to take another look and see how you got there.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  3. JackTors

    Here's an idea – don't committ crime and you won't go to jail.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  4. Steve Johnson

    Can we be politically correct with just actual TRUE FACTS from the FBI Statistics? Black people are only 18% of the population.

    Crime Rates:

    Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery.
    When blacks commit crimes of violence, they are nearly three times more likely than non-blacks to use a gun, and more than twice as likely to use a knife.
    Hispanics commit violent crimes at roughly three times the white rate, and Asians commit violent crimes at about one quarter the white rate.
    The single best indicator of violent crime levels in an area is the percentage of the population that is black and Hispanic.

    Interracial Crime

    Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.
    Blacks commit more violent crime against whites than against blacks. Forty-five percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. When whites commit violent crime, only three percent of their victims are black.
    Blacks are an estimated 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against a white than vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit robbery.
    Blacks are 2.25 times more likely to commit officially-designated hate crimes against whites than vice versa.

    Gangs

    Only 10 percent of youth gang members are white.
    Hispanics are 19 times more likely than whites to be members of youth gangs. Blacks are 15 times more likely, and Asians are nine times more likely.

    Incarceration

    Between 1980 and 2003 the US incarceration rate more than tripled, from 139 to 482 per 100,000, and the number of prisoners increased from 320,000 to 1.39 million.
    Blacks are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites. Hispanics are three times more likely.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
    • .

      I'm surprised this post got past the CNN moderator.

      The truth really stings them.

      Good post, Steve.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
      • Steve Johnson

        Thank you.

        March 31, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        You are surprised that his comment got past CNN.
        You are not making sense.
        What is wrong with the comment that would be deemed as inapropriate?

        March 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Because

      I would like to see the NAACP, Sharpton, Jackson, et al, jump up and down on these people of crime and straighten them out. That would do wonders to change everyone else's views of this race.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        What "race" are you talking about?

        April 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Rich Head

      Thank you Steve!

      April 1, 2012 at 12:32 am | Reply
  5. Zoglet

    Its hard for Americans to get their head round, but the country is worse than China or Russia. Not America basing, just observation.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
    • .

      You are totally clueless. And you have no idea what it was like to live in those countries.

      Count your blessings, junior.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  6. cannabis

    You people are so foolish if you're concerned about if it was the liberals or the conservatives fault. Because guess what they're both to blame. Theyve been running the country for too long and have made too many problems. I would like liberty and freedom back

    March 31, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  7. DoNotWorry

    Drugs, like war, is big business.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  8. Peter Lomtevas

    I am a lawyer in New York. Yesterday, I negotiated a plea agreement for a man whose ex called 911 when he came over to visit their child. He was charged with disorderly conduct for placing the woman at "risk of annoyance" by making an "unreasonable noise". I believe that if a judge sways the case against me, I'll craft an absurd plea deal that my client can show to others. This is the federal VAWA.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      unbelievable

      March 31, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  9. bvtr barby

    If you think America is democracy think again.... in no other country in the world you can go to jail for almost anything you do or fail to do...

    March 31, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Reply
    • the

      If Media Matters had their way you could be jailed for your political beliefs.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        What??
        Which media???
        With a statement like that, it leads us to believe you are trying to incite some ca ca.

        March 31, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  10. thes33k3r

    I find it hard to believe that I am about to type these words but.....for once, I fully agree with Pat Robertson.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  11. esurvival

    Reblogged this on eSurvival.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  12. .

    You wanna stay out of prison? It's simple. Stay away from drugs and don't act like an idiot.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  13. the

    You wanna stay out of prison? It's simple. Stay away from drugs and don't act like an idiot. The true definition of a conservative: A liberal who was mugged and beaten up last night.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  14. .

    test

    March 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  15. Bdpete

    Although blaming the enforcement of Anti Drug laws is convenient it isn't the primary reason for the increased prison population although the number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In only 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges.
    "Incarcerated America" Human Rights Watch (April 2003)
    United States Crime Rates 1960 – 2009. Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  16. Todd

    The US Freedom Party created the Federal Intoxicants Act which allows for one to purchase a federal license to grow hemp. It reduces crime, grants freedom and produces revenue for the government without having hemp sold as a product. It is more than workable. Google us freedom party intoxicants act and it will be at or near the top.....

    March 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  17. wjeri

    Well, it sort of is the "Wild West" here in the United States. Most of these crimes were committed from other than drugs. Freedom to do what you want will get you in trouble too. Keeping crime down is also very good in any situation. There is a reason that most Americans have guns, to protect and defend their loved ones and property. Keep the prisons, make them harsher and not as plush....

    March 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  18. OrionStyles

    The only thing I am curious about is how these "incarceration for profit" laws are blamed on liberals.

    Take a quick look at incarceration stats, and the bible belt has a much higher incarceration level... and those places are decidedly neo-con run.

    Neo-cons are far more authoritarian then liberals.

    Google political compass to see this, and even take the test yourself.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  19. Jen

    You are leading people to believe that the prisons being privately run has something to do with the incarceration rate. Prisons don't put people in jail. If people don't want to go to jail, they shouldn't buy, use or sell drugs. It's a pretty simple equation ... No Drugs = No prison for drugs. Don't be a criminal and you won't go to jail.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  20. allah

    the more blacks that are in jail the better!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • Steve Johnson

      an we be politically correct with just actual TRUE FACTS from the FBI Statistics? Black people are only 18% of the population.

      Crime Rates:

      Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery.
      When blacks commit crimes of violence, they are nearly three times more likely than non-blacks to use a gun, and more than twice as likely to use a knife.
      Hispanics commit violent crimes at roughly three times the white rate, and Asians commit violent crimes at about one quarter the white rate.
      The single best indicator of violent crime levels in an area is the percentage of the population that is black and Hispanic.

      Interracial Crime

      Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.
      Blacks commit more violent crime against whites than against blacks. Forty-five percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. When whites commit violent crime, only three percent of their victims are black.
      Blacks are an estimated 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against a white than vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit robbery.
      Blacks are 2.25 times more likely to commit officially-designated hate crimes against whites than vice versa.

      Gangs

      Only 10 percent of youth gang members are white.
      Hispanics are 19 times more likely than whites to be members of youth gangs. Blacks are 15 times more likely, and Asians are nine times more likely.

      Incarceration

      Between 1980 and 2003 the US incarceration rate more than tripled, from 139 to 482 per 100,000, and the number of prisoners increased from 320,000 to 1.39 million.
      Blacks are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites. Hispanics are three times more likely.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      So racist!

      March 31, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  21. creative36

    Fact: most prisoners are blacks that are incarcerated.

    Fact: incarcerating is a business where prisoner equal dollars.

    Conclusion: incarceration is basically slavery. Slavery still exist in America and it is state sanctioned.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Wow, did you have to draw dots so that you could make these outrageous connections?

      March 31, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  22. PraiseTheLard

    Could it be that in some of those countries the prison population's low because they just shoot them post haste?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Good point!

      March 31, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  23. RCDC

    Probably they be rehabilitated and change to become soldiers and be brought to South Korea front line.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  24. Carl Guyer

    I get a hoot out of Pat's reasoning that liberals are the ones responsible for all the people in jail. So mandatory sentencing is now opposed by conservatives, that is a new spin I never would have expected. Next thing you know Pat will be questioning whether the prisoners of GITMO are really a menace. Pat is right about too many people in jail, but he needs to learn a little a introspection so he can do the Christian thing an admit he was wrong in the past and not blame someone else.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  25. JUGGERNAUT

    10 YEARS FOR HAVE A JOINT OF MARIJUANA, WHILE RAPIST DO 12 YEARS OR LESS.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Do you have names to go with these cases?
      I would like to look them up.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  26. seaturtle

    I agree with Pat Roberson. OMG I never thought I'd say that! He's a Repuplican Conservative, but on this he is right. Education funding vs pot? I choose education funding 100%

    March 31, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  27. mydogsays

    We have totally archaic drug laws, class inequality and for profit prisons. What else would you expect?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  28. HomieDaClown

    For those who think Marijuana is evil, let me tell you about myself. When I was 21, I had a very bad motorcycle wreck, that did some damage to my spine, and nervous system. I suffered from seizures, and chronic pain. I was on over 7 prescription meds, that controlled my seizures somewhat, though I still had at least 2 a month. Anti anxiety meds, and opiate painkillers. I could not do anything physical, without extreme pain, and nothing that would be dangerous, if I had a seizure. A few years ago, a friend talked me into trying medical cannabis. My seizures, well I haven't had one in 2 years. I still have chronic pain, which is managed through medical cannabis. I now hold down a full time job, and am a taxpayer again. I do not take any additional medication, besides medical cannabis.
    I grow my own cannabis, which took a bit of time to learn to grow properly. I had 2 failed crops, before I got good enough to have a decent end product. It is not an easy plant to grow. It is very heat sensitive, it is PH sensitive, and has to be fed just right, or you burn your plants up, or substantially diminish their yield. I am now the medical provider, and grow for 5 other patients. I also run a hydroponic supply store, and teach new growers, as well. I could not do any of that, if I was still strung out on pharmaceuticals.
    Thank God, for cannabis.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  29. Mom in TX

    I would like to agree with you, Fareed. On many levels your agrument makes sense, but as someone who has been directly impacted by marijuana use I can understand and empathize with both sides of the argument and I am not sure where I stand anymore.

    I personally have never consumed alcohol or drugs and raised my children to "just say no." A few years ago my 14 year old son became a regular marijuana user in high school. It was easy to get and everyone he knew did it. He used to tell me that he didn't know anyone who didn't smoke at least occasionally. He and his circle of friends became prolific users, smoking multiple times a day, and when he was 15 he was expelled from high school after being caught with rolling papers in his book bag. He was an advanced placement student prior to being expelled but not being in school really stunted his social and emotional development. By the time he was 19 he was experiencing extreme mental health issues – illogical thought, paranoia, delusions and hallucinations. At 20 he was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder and is now drawing SSI Disability. Every doctor he has seen has told us that marijuana abuse is most certainly a factor in his illness. None of his circle of friends, about 20 or so young men, graduated from high school either. They were just too busy getting high and drunk, and all are now drains on society in their early 20s. These were all such nice kids with so much potential when they were 11-12 years old. What a waste of young minds.

    Sometimes I think that if marijuana had been legal my son and his friends would have at least been able to finish high school. On the other hand I see how completely this dug can destroy young lives when abused. I don't profess to have answers. I am just angry and confused. Should we have a national debate about the legalization of this drug? Probably, as long as we don't drown out the voices of reason and advocacy for all the young people who will use this drug and destroy themselves in the process. For starters, a pre-condition for legalization should be a diversion of some of the prison funds into education and treatment programs for teens and young adults.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • Dennis

      Mom,

      How many kids do you see selling alcohol on street corners?

      Why not?

      Because is is regulated and those caught selling to minors loose the wright to sell alcohol.

      Marjuana is illegal thus who sells it?

      Criminals some of which have a moral conpass so far off they sell to anyone regardless of age.

      Not only is the sales a problem the quality is unchecked do to lack of regulation.

      For what it is worth we have had multiple Presidents that admitted to using this drug and were able to rise to the highest office in the land.

      Do not give up on your son as his success should not have be limited due to experimentaion with drugs.

      Hope this helps

      March 31, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
    • DaveL

      If your son gets busted for smoking a joint guess what he now has a record. You want aid to go to college. Go to the government web site for FAFSA and notice Question #1, drug conviction? If so tough luck, go pound salt. I know plenty of people that are today business leaders, scientists and other contributors to society. If they got caught with that joint they would have never gone anywhere. George W Bush?? The bong master himself.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  30. Dennis

    It gets worse people look at the following link to stated report.

    We have been and continue to be lied to about the evils of this substance.

    Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

    http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/ncmenu.htm

    As for our law Law Enforcement brothers and sister see the following and help correct this injustice.

    Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

    http://www.leap.cc

    Finaly see the following especialy if you are one of the victums of this failed policy

    http://norml.org/

    Thanks and God Bless America

    March 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
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