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 (1,184 Responses)
  1. massms

    If marijuana were legalized, what happens when its users need a bigger, longer lasting, more powerful high? Do we then legalize heroin, cocaine, etc.?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • HomieDaClown

      I think you must be joking??? Right??

      March 31, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Dennis

      Time out

      Go educate yourself first

      This war on drugs has failed.

      For the cost of one heroin fix per day (current policy) we could legally administer one months worth of fixes and the user could continue to be a productive member of society.

      Maybe then the user would not have to steal to support their habit (wow lower violent crime too).

      Anyway how many people would just want to start using herion if was made leagal tommorow?

      How about are you just waiting for it to be legal so you can start using?


      Time out

      Go educate yourself.

      Tough love yet we still love ya

      March 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  2. Concerned in Illinois

    I can't bring myself to agree on "de-criminalizing drugs"; but there needs to be another alternative than prison for users. Just -users-... not those who commit the resulting crimes (robbery, burglary, etc – all in the name of getting cash to buy the drugs). Thirty, fourty, fifty thousand dollars a year to incarcerate a user... gotta be a better way.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  3. GenericMan

    Too many laws, too many laws, too many laws. More law make more criminals. Failing culture, failing. Parking permits, speeding tickets, seat belt laws, 21 to drink, juveniles sentenced as adults, death penalties, arrests for filming police, pat downs at airports, cops left and right, court dates that never end, criminal registries after release. This is a country full of scared people thanks to the local news, hollywood, religios preachers. We televised courtooms, have spectator areas for executions, television shows for cop chases, NANCY GRACE.Americans are angry and afraid and in love with crime and punishment.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  4. bob searcy

    why dont we put the boughten, filthy politicians in the prisons? american politics is nothing to be touting to the rest of the world. its the sickest system of any..

    March 31, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  5. fwswisher

    Did most of the US population learn anything from the collapse of 2008 – 2009? I saw first hand that when things are unsustainable, ugly things happen. This was clearly true of the property bubble.
    Prohibition creates crime, it's that simple. Hypocricy creates resentment. Populating prisons instead of educational centers is obviously a terrible investment. They either get out of college or leave prison – we choose! Keep the prisons for the sociopaths. psycopaths and killers of course – but stop this dark business of keeping the wrong people in jail!
    Americans have argued about evolution, equal rights and global warming. How long before this manufactured crime trend collapses under it's own weight? Wasted lives, wasted money, and wasted time. Let's be adults!

    March 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  6. 1ofTheFallen

    Bark – You might want to work on your reading skills. I mentioned minor offenses not violent crimes.

    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 7:43 pm |
  7. potlover83

    Most people don't know that at the University of Mississippi, they grow and research medical marijuana for the FDA. They send a canister of 300 joints to out-of-states patients but they don't do that for Mississippians. Recently, Sen. Deborah Dawkins, a democrat senator wrote a bill to legalize medical marijuana for the 4th time..but the bill died before reaching the committee. Not surprising. As I'm from Mississippi, it is sad to see our State being behind on this sort of thing. Republicans are hypocrites bigots!

    More about U. of Miss. marijuana research program:

    March 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • potlover83

      Another link to go look at:

      March 31, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  8. bing520

    There is scant evidence to show Pat Robertson's theory is correct. It will have to go through some tests and scrutiny. If the majority of countries criminalize marijuana, impose prison terms on its use and possession and have a significantly smaller jailed population, Robertson's reasoning may be faulty. Marijuana might not be the main problem. Secondly, there has been steady, large decline in crime rate since our laws stipulated tough sentencing for drug use and all other violent crimes. More prisons may be the cause of reduction in crimes. Many researches on this topic point to multiple causes behind lower crime rate. Will our crime rate increase as we decriminalize marijuana? The experiences of legalized marijuana in Europe seem to suggest a rise in crimes. Robertson would be wrong again if we decriminalize marijuana only to see more crimes.

    Lastly, we have to look at the enforcement issue. Today we have great difficulty preventing teenagers from using alcohol and cigarettes. Does Robertson think the country would do a much better job on marijuana?

    And I don't know how Pat Robertson would feel when people are gathered to smoke a joint or two in the church parking lot every Sunday.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  9. Dan Cimino

    We do not need to legalize marijuana to solve the problem you cite. A more sensible approach is to give offenders community service and other probationary penalties rather than sending them to prison. In a future article, you should cite statistics on how many people are imprisoned for specific drug offenses so we really know what the impact is of different drug laws.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Dennis


      Do you work for the DEA?

      If you do start at the Leap link first.

      If not and you believe all the goverment told you over the years try the Nixon report.

      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

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

      Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

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

      Thanks and God Bless America

      March 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  10. Dan Cimino

    We have a very polarized society, both our distribution of wealth and our political system. The extreme disparity in financial and social conditions might well be a more significant cause of the high percentage of our citizens who are behind bars. While we are the world's wealthiest country, we have many urban cities with high school graduation rates well under 50%. How is that going to lead to a positive outcome?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  11. Americal 68

    get rid of the drug prisoners who haven't committed murder. there is at least 20% other who will stumble along and be alright without prison...a lot of prisoners need to be right there. sorry i've been there and the whackcos are dangerous and have to stay till it hits them one day to do different. it happens, thats why you "do" time.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  12. Steve Johnson

    Well 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.


    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.


    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 7:59 pm |
  13. J. Johnsay

    I agree completely. The war on drugs has wasted untold amounts of treasure and lives and to what end? It's time for it to end and to grant amnesty to most drug related offenders.
    Let's be clear though, the war on drugs started under Nixon and the current spiraling incarceration rate started under Regan.
    They are both the brain children of conservative politics.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Dennis


      And Nixon lied to us see the following:

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

      Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

      March 31, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  14. GenericMan

    Why is this never an issue with politicians, talking revolves around defense, healthcare, taxes, economy, immigration. America is one ugly place. A world leader in all the shameful categories. Military spending, prisoners, pollution.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  15. SmokeScreen

    These facts and statistics should have every American (I'm sure with the unfortunate exception of those who have been hopelessly brainwashed by decades of "War on Drugs" propaganda) cringing in horror. Between the federal, state and local governments, we annually spend $27 billion on marijuana prohibition, not to mention the denying of jobs to users of marijuana and the devastating effects on lives and families of those arrested and incarcerated for marijuana offenses. It's beyond bizarre that after 9 years our government figured out that alcohol prohibition simply didn't work, but it's been 70 years of marijuana being illegal in this country and the government still doesn't get it. Bizarre indeed...

    March 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  16. unowhoitsme

    25% of high school students don't graduate. Until education becomes a priority in this country, we'll build more and more prisons.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  17. Byron Delaney

    Thank you Zakaria! There seems to be a general agreement that marijuana is safer than alcohol, and doesn't cause overdoses. It seems like lunacy that someone can get ten years for simply having a joint, or 20 years for having a single plant. Considering this, it's amusing in a sick way anyone can legally grow opium poppies in their garden and buy liquor made with coca leaves. And when will marijuana be legalized and regulated like alcohol on a federal level? If it doesn't happen soon, is it proof that America is akin to countries that are not free?

    March 31, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  18. Chasity

    legalize marijuana and I am very sure the economy will improve because more people will be able to get better jobs.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  19. Warren

    One thing that wasn't mentioned there and which I would like to know more about, is that a lot of that huge population of incarcerated people are apparently being used for labor of various types on behalf of businesses. As such they get paid very little (50 cents an hour or something like that) and cost a company almost nothing while doing manufacturing jobs. Since the prisons themselves are privatized to begin with, this would be verging on slave labor if its true.
    As well, I have often wondered if the "War on Drugs" was in part a broad attempt to make the US more conservative by ensuring a larger portion of the population is unable to vote – having been convicted of a crime and done time in prison. I realize that sounds just a bit paranoid of course, but aren't the sort of people who do a lot of drugs *less* likely to vote conservatively? Perhaps they are simply less likely to vote 😛

    March 31, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  20. drew2505

    Its amazing how one always hears how much it costs to house a prisoner. Mr Zakaria quotes $50K annually. No one ever mentions how much the lawyers make "defending" these prisoners. WIth so many lawmakers/lawyers having a vested interest in this continuing, its highly unlikely that things will change.

    It is clearly out of control in this country...the media breeds paranoia and constant fear, and the lawmakers capitalize on this to make decisions in their personal best interests. It's corruption under the facade of public safety.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  21. TripC

    the problem is pharmaceutical companies can not develop marijuana in a pill for that reacts with your body the same way a joint does. Therefore if the pharmaceutical companies cannot profit from this they form a super pact to influence the politicians of the U.S

    March 31, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  22. mahmoud el-darwish

    RE:Incarceration nation
    Yes. Have known all about this for a while. Indeed, having had the dubious distinction of serving on a Bureau of Prisons engagement, I most shocked by the incorrect statistic of the number of incarcerated Americans. In 2001 it was roughly 6 Million, or half the 'published' figure.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  23. Byron Delaney

    And what about tobacco? It's an addictive drug and causes horrible cancers, yet is legal. But marijuana, which doesn't cause cancer and doesn't need to be smoked, can result it 10 to 20 YEARS in prison? Similar to a murderer? What is this saying about our country? This needs to end now.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  24. mahmoud el-darwish

    Erratum! Looks like the published figure has finally been corrected! 7M and rising....

    March 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  25. Sunny

    It cracks me up that Republicans constantly accuse Liberals of expanding government, yet they are behind numerous laws that expand government and criminalize EVERYTHING, from smoking a joint in your own home to having mental issues when you are pregnant (google Bei Bei Shuai). We are left with a society of people revolving through prison, where they often become REAL criminals, or more efficient criminals. People need to recognize their sick need to control society and that prison is NOT the answer to a better society. People with drug problems or mental problems need HELP. They need to be getting treatment, not in prison which just ensures they will be WORSE when they get out. We were much better about treating addiction and mental health problems in this country before Reagan and "just say no." Today it's just a mess. I guess in this country it doesn't matter what is BETTER for SOCIETY, you have to be making millions for Congressmen. That's all that matters.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Lionel Mandrake

      "yet they are behind numerous laws that expand government and criminalize EVERYTHING"
      Can you name a couple of these numerous laws that you are complaining about?
      If you did, you might become somewhat more knowledgable.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
      • Ryan

        I believe what Sunny is saying is what seems to be hypocrisy when a lot of the GOP are always saying liberals are expanding government and want to impose all these mandates on you which will limit your freedom. You asked for some examples and I think a few of the obvious ones are their stance on weed (which we are talking about), along with their opposition to gay marriage and abortion. I would say telling people who they can't marry and telling women what choices they shouldn't have is government really getting involved and telling you how to live your life.

        March 31, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  26. ivotedno

    The best path to a true drug-free America is to follow the example of post-war East Germany. Ensure half the population is spying on the other half - kids are great for doing this, we just need to empower DARE a little more - and throw all the offenders in jail for at least a decade. And just like the Stazi-ridden state, the 1% can exempt themselves from this law.

    If you date the War on Drugs from Nixon, it's about as old as Eastern European communism was when it met its end (and about as successful ignoring those with vested interests). If you date it from 1982, the "Just say no" year, it probably has another decade left before it implodes and leaves the nation in worse shambles than it's in now.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  27. Dave

    Double standard: The excessive US prison population with regards to the population was first mentioned in the UN general assembly September speech by Dr. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president. The same people who appreciate the information coming from Mr. Pat Robertson walked away when Ahmadinejad talked about it among other issues!?

    March 31, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  28. Todd Lefondler

    I want to know who it is that disagrees with the legalization of marijuana. These are probably baby boomers who ate up all the propaganda that the mid-century politicians and businessmen fed to them. They apparently don't realize that marijuana has PROVEN medicinal uses (even many cancer, AIDS, etc. patients who had never tried it before in their lives tried it after being stricken with the disease after being recommended it and discovered how useful it was to battle their illness), it's been around for god knows how long (ancient China folk smoked the stuff), and it was NEVER illegal until the mid-20th century. Hell, George Washington grew an abundance of it after he resigned his presidency and became a full-time farmer. Do you celebrate Columbus Day? Because he carried ganja with him, too. And of course, these people will also probably deny its immense benefits in our declining economy.
    As for the prisons here, what a joke. We're essentially turning people INTO criminals by imprisoning them, and then putting them back out on the streets with a list of connections for their future. Then they have jail time on their records forever, even though all many of them did was pack a bowl after their 9-5 and lit up. Politicians have their heads sky-high in their rectums, and a large chunk of the populace isn't much different.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • StupidPeople

      I couldn't have said it better myself.

      Whenever you ask why someone is against marijuana, they always regurgitate the same old BS. Regardless of how many scientific and patient approved studies there are, those against it will have a closed mind that is nearly impossible to be altered.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  29. Art

    Flogging is a better punishment. A few good floggings will be a lot more effective that fines and jail time. Pot heads is just that: Pot heads.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Byron Delaney

      What about Xanax heads? And all those opiate prescription drugs? Should we flog them too? Marijuana won't cause an overdose but those will. Should be flog anyone who takes more pills than are prescribed, or just log everyone who takes them at all for anything other than truly serious conditions?

      March 31, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  30. Charles

    The media is correct on the US being #1 in priosn population. However they are incorrect in potraying us as being way ahead of every other nation. Check your facts. Russia is not that far behind this country. They were not that long ago #1 themselves. Also other nations biting at our heels are the Cayman Islands and Belarus.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
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