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. Peacem8ker6

    Our incarceration rate is higher because of the demographics in the U.S. The average reading level of inmates is approximately 3rd-5th grade level so even if fewer are arrested for drugs, they aren't going to use their time to attend college to become petroleum engineers. While many would argue the benefits of legalization, the detrimental impact on the lives of the majority of users and their children is undeniable. However, I would support legal use for ANY adult who does not have children (and/or undergoes voluntary sterilization) as long as they are also banned from being able to EVER use any taxpayer funded aid (including Medicaid). Unfortunately though, most clamoring for legalization are not the financially secure masses. American public schools are already seeing an enormous drop in IQ scores. increased behavioral/emotional/psychological problems including learning disabilities due to herediatary and environmental factors including parental smoking, drug use and exposure to domestic violence which means we will have fewer intelligent/skilled workers and greater numbers depending on handouts from taxpayers. Legalization should ONLY be considered if steps are in place to protect children and taxpayers from bearing the burden for their use/abuse of drugs and any related outcome.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      We have more people in prison because in other countries, if you have money, you simply bribe the cops or the judge, and you do not go to jail.

      April 1, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
      • rlowens1

        And, you know this how? Experience? Link? Somebody told you? You dreamed it up? What?

        April 2, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  2. Law Abiding Citizen

    I agree with PorkNBeans!! Everyone is missing the point! We have too many people in our California prisons because the prisons are like country clubs! I thought when you broke the law you lost your rights as a citizen – California needs to bring back the chain gangs to work for the state!! Get the prison population doing something to earn their pay – no sitting around with color tvs, etc. Their work would be their "physical fitness" for the day. Maybe people would think twice about breaking the law if they had to WORK for their publically funded stay and it wasn't 'pleasant' to be in prison!!! Maybe we could get the bullet train built with prison labor!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • rlowens1

      Or, what? Torture? Thumb screws? Waterboarding? Solitary confinement?

      What is wrong with you?

      April 2, 2012 at 9:54 am |
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    April 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
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    April 1, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  5. jewellcj

    Well done Fareed – spot on. I would like to add also that the high number of readily available lethal weapons (guns) in America compared with other developed nations is likely also a reason for the high crime rate and imprisonment in the USA. Just as with prisons, guns are promoted by a powerful lobby in Congress: all very sad.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  6. al

    Thank you Mr. Zakaria for this type of reports it is clear that war on drugs is a lost battle and a waist of tax dollars.
    Having people encarcerarated should NOT be big bussines for a couple of influential private companies, while the tax payers are left with the bill of $50,000 per year per innmate.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
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    April 2, 2012 at 4:52 am |
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    April 2, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  9. Coprolito

    Incarceration is a money maker for private prisons. Judges are colluded with private prisons to send "clients" as many as possible to these places.

    April 2, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  10. 9mil

    So pat, answer me this: If the war on sin appears to be a failure, should we all switch sides? Isn't that pretty much your logic on drugs??

    April 2, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Michigander5

      Your logic regarding drugs, is using a really old story to base your decisions on.. we all saw how that worked out during the Temperance movement.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  11. E. Coli

    RE: "Well then, if you have had enough, go back to Syria, Libia, Iran, Lebanon..."
    Ah yes... the old 'things could be worse' defense. So if the patient is sick, we shouldn't try to cure them... just tell them to quit whining... at least they don't have something worse? Sheeesh!

    April 2, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  12. reb

    LAND OF THE FREE.....(and the home of the jailed)!

    April 2, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  13. rlowens1

    Notice the numbers in the poll, here – over 80% of those polled want marijuana legalized. But, watch what our government does about it – nothing. Because, our elected officials care nothing about freedom or civil rights. They care only about stuffing their pockets with our money as fast as they possibly can, and they will change the rules if they must to do it.

    Look for there to be NO change in the trend, here. They don't even care if we notice what they're doing any more.

    April 2, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  14. Bazinga!

    I It makes too much sense, so it'll never happen in the United States, the new police state. Achtung!

    April 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  15. Lee

    Wow, this is a day that should go down in history. Pat Robertson finally said something that makes sense. We need to make this a public holiday, build statues, put him beside Lincoln. This is just so amazing.

    April 2, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • rlowens1

      Oh, give me a break! He's just profiting off of a popular band wagon. It doesn't take more than a double digit IQ to see the truth of the matter, here.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  16. rlowens1

    You know, I wouldn't be surprised if the drug cartels are secretly investing in private prisons so they can make money off both ends. They get to raise the prices of their products because the risk of prison is greater, and they get to profit off the revenues from the prison system, too. And, all it cost them was a few politicians.

    April 2, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • rlowens1

      Oh, and of course, the icing on the cake is that, if you own the prison system, you don't ever have to worry about being incarcerated by it.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  17. James

    In other countries a law is a law...So if you get caught stealing and stealing is a 10 year offense, then you serve 10 years....Here in the United States you get arrested, you get bailed out, you have judges who will not enforce the law so you can get arrested for meth many times and never go to prison, or get caught stealing and get probation...So don't tell me crime doesn't pay in the United States...Plus in our prisons you still have rights to tie up the courts with all kinds of filings...In other countries you lose your rights while in prison....Just like, you give money to people who won't work, and you think this is helping them when they refuse to help themselves...If your not going to enforce the laws we have and the regular crime breakers no this, then what should they be afraid of...Sell dope, make 5,000 dollars...get caught go to court, get a suspension or pay a $1,000 fine....I think I would sell dope under those rules...

    April 2, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • rlowens1

      So, smart guy, what is your explanation for why there are so many more US citizens incarcerated than anywhere else in the world? And, more importantly, what do you suggest to change that?

      April 2, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  18. Hey You

    I find it intolerable that the US has become a nation of quitters. If something isn't working right – quit, especially if it requires effort to fix. The so-called "war on drugs" isn't working, so just stop it and quit. It has become the easy way out.

    Perhaps the answer is to change the nature of the war, not stop it.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • rlowens1

      The War on Drugs was ILL-CONCEIVED from the start. Don't you get it? It's STUPID to continue doing something that you have identified as a MISTAKE.

      What is wrong with you that you don't understand this as clearly as I do?

      April 2, 2012 at 10:04 am |
      • Hey You

        Apparently you haven't had your toke this morning.

        April 2, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • gstlab3

      It's not a war on drugs., it is a war on Marijuana.

      Only one or two percent of drugs used are hard drugs like cocaine and herion.

      The majority of drug use is marijuana.

      like ninty to eighty percent of drug use is marijuana.

      that is what the government fears most.,Marijuana.

      Marijuana allows the user to think outside of the box the government put you in.

      Have a nice life living in that box of Tyrany and Communism.

      April 2, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • gstlab3

      It's not a war on drugs.,

      It is a war on Marijuana.

      Only one or two percent of drugs used are hard drugs like cocaine and herion.

      The majority of drug use is marijuana.

      like ninety to eighty percent of all drug use is marijuana.

      that is what the government fears most.,Marijuana.

      Marijuana allows the user to think outside of the tiny box the government put you in.

      Have a nice life living in that box of Tyrany and Communism.

      April 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  19. AnuderSolution

    My life would be so much easier knowing my kids were picking up their pot from a doctor than those damn kids they hang around.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  20. Jack Smythe

    Lobbying and the effect of lobbyists on government policy is the #1 domestic problem in this country. Big business lobbyists are destroying the economy and have a huge effect on the everyday lives of the people (i.e. voters). Government does what is best for big business and not the voters or taxpayers. Politicians quest for election campaign contributions is destroying the country. When you read that the largest companies (Exxon, Walmart, Apple) are more powerful and command more wealth than may countries this sets a dangerous precedence.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  21. James

    When I was a kid, the only reason I smoked pot was because I couldn't decide if I wanted to be anorexic or a Brain Surgeon...And the pot made me so hungry that it ruled out the anorexic dream, and the pot dulled my senses enough that Brain Surgery was out of the question....So I decided to be a politician...

    April 2, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  22. Bill

    The author mentions the incarceration rate of the 80's. Now also take a look at the crime rates during the 80's and 90's, comparted to now, and have another conversation about taking violent offenders off the street. Crime, particularly violent crime, has dropped to a third of its height, primarily because we have locked up the offenders.
    Are some of the laws regarding non-violent crimes, particularly drug usage excessive? Yes, particularly if you look at the fact that many minorities will get a considerably harsher sentence for the same crimes.

    One must, however, take serious thought about why we started to make the laws tougher in the first place.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • rlowens1

      We made the laws tougher in the first place because of the wrong-headed idea that stiffer penalties would equate to a lower crime rate – but, it doesn't.

      Most violent crimes are crimes of passion or desperation – and, neither of those conditions lend themselves well to considering consequences. We are dealing with human nature here, not logic.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:22 am |
      • Bill

        Yet, as I stated above, the facts suggest otherwise. What do you believe caused this drop? Try responding to my points.

        April 2, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • rlowens1

      "Crime, particularly violent crime, has dropped to a third of its height, primarily because we have locked up the offenders."

      Oh, really? All the offenders were caught in the 80's? Even the ones that were not born, yet? Your argument falls flat on that point, alone. Did you care to try, again?

      April 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  23. Jeff Lucas

    Want to know what Christians think about it all? Discuss Pat Robertson's comments about pot law reform on the world's largest Bible study website,


    April 2, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  24. Jeff Lucas

    the drug war is what has filled our prisons with non violent, victimless offenders.

    A reschedule of pot would free up 12.5% of our federal prison beds and an average of 12.5% of the state's prison beds. It would also end the 800,000+ arrests made each year at the local level.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • rlowens1

      And, how many law enforcement jobs do you suppose that would eliminate? And, how much would be cut from their budgets? That's why it won't happen. They care more about their jobs and their budgets than what is fair and reasonable.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  25. MIKE


    April 2, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • rlowens1

      It would be nice if you learned how to stop shouting on the internet in all caps.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  26. Dr. Loomis

    I don't want to like you Robertson but damn it, this makes it difficult.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • rlowens1

      I still don't like him or trust him. Look at the poll. He knew the numbers, too. He's just jumping on an identified popular bandwagon for a little attention. And, apparently, he is getting it.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  27. danny

    if you smoke pot do you really need kids? its a drug

    April 2, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  28. beforus

    Even GOD only gave 10 commandments. Well when the politicians die I am sure they will finally find out what pain is about. Why do you think we are in Afghanistan? The poppy over there have never seen growth over a 100 fold since we arrived there. Something has to fund our corrupt govt. and CIA. People is prison for smoking a joint. It just shows you our politicians are brainless and just have their pockets open for corrution from lobbyists. We need a new govt. period

    April 2, 2012 at 10:29 am |
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