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. Joe

    The American Way...Lock up non-threatening citizens for using drugs & create parentless children, spread poisonous pesticides over OTHER countries (not even our own for Christs' sakes) to erradicate plants that produce drugs, and waste countless dollars on imprisoning people & creating law enforcement to act as big brother and not truly protect the REAL criminal . & after it's all said and done, we sit there scratching our heads wondering why we are going broke??!! If an alien could study our society, by far the American one is the worst. We have made so many advances and we are capable of much more!

    April 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  2. will

    Genesis 9:3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • JeramieH

      ... except for all the fatally poisonous plants in the world.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  3. clearick

    The reason is simple- Prison owners have found a way to make money guaranteed. ! Open prisons and staff them. 2. Use you money and influence to pass state and federal laws making common practices a crime. 3. Collect he money from the Tax-payers (Suckers)

    This is why special interest groups should not be permitted. Why should a prison owner have a say in what is legal and what is not? How do these laws protect the public? They DON'T!

    Why is no politician willing to stand up and point out the truth, that the War on Drugs is a failure for everyone except the prison owners and their employees? Legalizing marijuana and releasing these people from prison would save $ billions of tax-payer dollars, and create a number of new job-creating industries. IT is SO OBVIOUSLY WRONG and unconscionable in a free society. CNN might be able to help by running a story on who OWNS the PRISONS and how much they spend on lobbying.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  4. PC

    Here's a thought...instead of jail time how about a big fine for pot? It won't make the prison owners happy, but it would help the taxpayers.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  5. Angryone

    Pat Robertson has no idea what he is talking about. Marijuana was de-criminalized in most states 40 to 50 years ago. Possession of marijuana most places results in nothing more than a ticket which in most cases result in lower penalties than speeding tickets. Nobody goes to prison for possession a single joint. Furthermore, people possessing large amounts of drugs, and/or selling them, don't go to prison unless they've been arrested many times before. Read the papers, or better yet, visit your local courts and observe a few cases. You'll see that most criminals get probation or a slap on the wrist. Even violent criminals get their cases plead down and don't do jail time. You have to have a lengthy history of arrests before any judge will sentence you to jail time.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • BioHzrd420

      If marijuana was decriminalized in most states 50 years ago, then why do I not see people lighting up on the streets? Why am I still using code on the down-low. That's right, because simple possession IS a crime in MOST states.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  6. Zhao

    First, Pat Robertson saying Liberals are to blame? Really? I thought it was the Republicans that had the tough on crime philosophy?

    Second, FZ, how about the rates are higher in the US because they do a better job at identifying, locating, and apprehending criminals? Other places in the world have serious low corruption problems, people buy their way out of being arrested often.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • anon

      unlike the USA where money has never protected anyone from legal trouble!

      April 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  7. .

    because we have a lot of victimless crimes made up by puritans. USA is still very much a theocracy.

    April 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  8. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Bohdan or Voiceinthedesert)

    Its not marijuana, but rather it's corporal punishment, stupid! When that was removed from families, schools and prisons, the United States quickly surpassed the Gulag Archipelago rate of detentions! In the Stalin's Gulag, you were greeted with corporal punishment upon entrance, and upon leaving. No one wanted to go back. In America, people live in prisons as if in hotels. They often commit a crime on purpose, to get incarcerated! Give them consequences, let's say twenty lashes at the moment of booking. They will think twice before going back! As for marijuana, it is irrelevant. No one should be in prison for that! You catch someone with a joint, you give them 5 lashes and release them. Second time, you give them ten, and so on. If they are caught six times, they get 60 lashes and are released. Finally, they will realize that the use of marijuana doesn't pay! The same with bullies in schools, with shoplifters, and other truants and thugs!

    April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  9. Doug

    Two facts worthy of note;
    1. With about 4.5% of the world's population the US has about 25% of the world's "inmates".
    2. The ONLY nation in recent history to imprison a greater percentage of its' own citizens than the US now does was the USSR under Joseph Stalin in his gulags.
    There is little "justice" in America and we should as a nation be ashamed of our senseless, so very costly practice of simply "throwing people in prison".

    April 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  10. Dave

    Meanwhile, we are bankrupting out states and creating a vast underclass of prisoners who will never be equipped for productive lives.

    So, Zakaria....this being said by you. What is the solution, free them or kill them?

    April 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • JustaThought

      Did you miss the point of the article? If marijuana is legal, then marijuana users won't be in jail.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  11. Regular Guy

    I did 1.75 years in 1997-98 for 4 grams of marijuanna in AZ. Obviously I had previous convictions (2) for possession (no violent crimes, no crimes with a "victim")... but still... I went in for sentencing on my lunch break from work and I couldn't believe that judge gave me the ag-max. Today I don't smoke, but I have to be honest – 14 years later the simple possession convictions shut many doors in my life. Kind of overkill, if you ask me.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Jubril

      Judge must have been suffering from erectile dysfunctional , see back in the days we had no treatment, nowadays judges are more happy and might even smoke a joint with you

      April 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  12. Dave

    Who the hell is Pat Robertson that we should listen to him to begin with? He's no more knowledgeable than we are on this subject.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  13. rob

    Why isn't Portugal even mentioned, they have decriminalized almost every drug including marijuana with great success. The money that was going to incarceration is now going to drug treatment programs and etc. The drug use in Portugal has significantly gone down instead of going up.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Thor

      On the other hand, it definately is a stimulus that procreates survival of the fittest. The stupid shall smoke and the high shall die.... or rot in mental oblivion. Have you ever been to Portugal?

      April 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
      • rob

        Your not making sense

        April 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  14. Danny Garnell

    We have a large prison population because how nice prisoners are treated. Try getting caught in turkey with drugs and see what happens. We also made liquor legal in this country for people said we are loosing the war. Now this country is in a drunken stuper.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • JustaThought

      You have a short memory and/or are unable to think your opinions through to conclusion. Go look up prohibition and the upsurge of gangsters and mobsters. Going after people who drink irresponsibly is better/easier/cheaper than going after people who drink irresponsibly (because they will, whether it's legal or not) AND a whole new breed of gangsters.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
      • Dave

        you must be high, because what you just wrote doesn't make any sense. You just said "Going after people who drink irresponsibly is better/easier/cheaper than going after people who drink irresponsibly". Say what? lol

        April 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • duh

      Man kind (specifically americans) drank before, during, and after prohibition. TO think laws will stop people from using mind altering substances is a fantasy.

      April 3, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  15. Syd

    Things we wish we didn't need should not be money making enterprises. Of course prisons are full as their owners use the legalized open bribery of our political system to ensure it is so. End the drug war and stop thinking that locking inner city thugs in cages with psychos is a deterrent. People from bad neighborhood grow up with psychos so it doesn't scare them. It DOES scare rich white collar criminals; but they end up in country club Martha Stewart jails. The whole criminal justice system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up..

    April 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  16. Danny Garnell

    Didnt we just have a great singer that overdose on drugs that is proof against drugs.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • duh

      We are talking cannabis here not coca. BTW 1,000s die from alcohol and thats legal.

      April 3, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  17. Memo

    Ever since the Repubs decided to "privatize" the prison system, the for-profit wardens have lobbied to criminalize just about everything. If you wake up with bad hair one day, then you should go to jail as far as they're concerned. It's how they make money.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  18. jstout5111

    Those who oppose the decriminalization of marijuana claim that it is a "gateway" drug. The ONLY reason that their assertion is an accurate one is because marijuana is illegal. Therefore, to get marijuana, a person needs to go to a "dealer," who, not infrequently, deals in hard drugs to which they want to expose their marijuana customers. Decriminalizing, if not legalizing, marijuana would make it available through legal channels that don't offer hard drugs.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  19. JustaThought

    Legalize marijuana, then regulate and tax it like alcohol and tobacco. Gives the prison problem some relief and provides a huge source of revenue for the government. And has the benefit of making lots of people happy.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  20. The 82%

    As of this date of my posting the poll has 40k people and 82% believe it should be decriminalized... 8% say it should be criminal... 7% aren't sure.

    So 82 vs 15%..

    It's time to make the change...

    Although managing prisons may be big business, those people rotting in jail for stupid things could be earning their own keep in this world and being even MORE productive, OFF the taxpayer's dime.

    When the religious Right agrees with a liberal idea, its time to move on it

    April 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  21. information

    amerika! land of the uptight , home of the neurotic

    April 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  22. Jim

    "Why is this happening? Prisons are a big business. Most are privately run. They have powerful lobbyists and they have bought most state politicians."

    Yet, Lame Stream Media is confused to what OWS is all about.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Memo

      On the one hand, I'm happy to see how many commentators on this board have an understanding of what you just said. On the other hand, it makes me so mad to see that marijuana is STILL a crime, even when the vast majority of people are clearly saying that it shouldn't be.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  23. Thor

    How many people promise to not go to work stoned if we legalize pot? Surgeons? Judges? Police officers with guns? Security guards with guns? Truck drivers pushing the "big rigs"? Nurses administering meds ? Druggists filling your prescriptions? Ferry operators? Airline pilots? Civilian pilots? I guess it just doesn't matter since marijuana has absolutely no effect on the society where it is legalized right? Oh..... so you say that once pot is legal, no one is going to do those things while high? .... Then... why do we have DUI/DWI laws? Do you think THC is going to make it all better? With the legalization of pot, you are akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Pat

      Prison. The article was about failed war on drugs and prison.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • its all about money ppl

      so many ppl do these things already and do you see headlines of ppl that were high on pot that commited crimes and what not no, not saying it couldnt happen but i think there is greater good in taxing it then throwing people in jail over it. our country is in so much debt and we are throwing money away over such petty crimes. war on harder drugs yes war on pot no.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • duh

      A) this already happens. B) this already happens with alcohol C) that is why there are drug tests if someone appears intoxicated.

      April 3, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  24. Thor

    It's amazing how many true Republicans actually exist to comment how marijuana should be legal in order to create a business!

    April 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  25. blam

    Hard work good and
    Hard work fine
    But first take care of head.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  26. BlackDynamite

    Prisons feed the nation's economy, government aid, and job creation
    The cops in your area are pawns in this game.

    More made up laws = more made up crimes = more made up criminals = more prisons = more made up jobs = more money!
    Lesson complete.....

    April 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  27. John T

    I agree with the decriminalization of Marijuana. In fact I would go one further. I think it should be Federally regulated, taxed, and sold to any person over the age of 21 (just like liquor). You could sell packs of Doobie 100s for $25, with 95% of that going toward the national deficit. We would be out of debt in a week. Just like alcohol – you cant show up to work drunk or drink on the job or drink and drive... pot would need to be treated the same way. You might say, "But if you decriminalize it, no one will buy it – they will just grow it" – and I agree that some would, but TBH most Americans are all about convenience. Legalize it, Sell it, Tax the hell out of it. – That's just my personal opinion.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  28. Barry G.

    Why are our prisons full?

    Too many bad parents.

    Too many teen parents.

    Too many who don't know their right hand from their left.

    Too few good role mokes.

    Too many bad role models.

    Too much expectaion of privilege and too little sense of responsibility.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Bottom Line

      That's a true statement in any society Barry but the issue is far more insidious as there are corporations who are profiting off of the head count of people in prison. It's a lock and load mentality that leads to bunk prosecution, extended sentences for laws that should not be on the books in the first place...

      April 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Dave

      It would be better to free up our prisons from people being held for selling weed and refill them with white collar criminals who do the same crime over and over again.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  29. Dean


    The United States has never had a war against drugs. They have declared a war against it's citizens. The sheer number of our friends and family behind bars proves this fact.

    Sorry A.papa but I have no friends or family members behind bars. Could be that you just hang out with the wrong crowd???

    April 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Memo

      He said "our" friends and family members. He was speaking as a group. There are too many in the United States.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  30. rolinger

    If the govt wants to keep it illegal, then only go after the delears and growers – not the consumers. That would have a profound impact on the Prison system. Make all existing incarcerated 'users" Misdemeanor charges and let them go.

    If the govt makes it legal – regulate it, tax it and make revenue off it like alcohol. And put all revenues towards education.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
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