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. Mac

    Let's be smart here. Legalize marijuana, tax it, and save space in our prisons for more serious crimes and violent offenders.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  2. Pat

    Please legalize marijuana. I would like to occasionally smoke a fattie and wistfully remember what it was like to smoke a some hand me down stems and seeds 32 years ago back when I was in 8th grade.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  3. Matt

    One of the greatest lies is that liberals are about freedom. Quite the opposite. Liberals, and Obama want to control everything you do – they try to hide that by presenting that they are giving you a choice – but their choices are between what they want you to do, and what they dont mind if you do. The Liberal agenda gives the people that rely on it enough to survive, but never enough to escape – while Obama and his crew tighten the reins of control and bondage. Look at the bill they just passed essentially making it illegal to protest (legally) at State Sanctioned events – Obama has stripped your freedoms faster than any president in history – he isnt about change, hope, or making it better for anybody – he is all about making it worse and more restrictive for everybody.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • duh

      To say that about a single politcal party is just stoopid. Each party is slowly taking away our liberty in their own way.

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

      Off topic.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  4. its all about money ppl

    so arent cigs more harmful than pot?...

    April 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Richp

    Until the profit, career and retirement as well as the courts are removed nothing will change. DEA is a money maker pure and simple. Same with Law Enforcement, there are over 80 separate and independent federal sworn and armed agencies in DC. That includes the EPA who have dedicated swat teams of their own, guess they need them to combat those militant non recyclers. It is just another case of government out of control and empire building.

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

    Once it's legal, big businesses will mass produce like they do with cigarettes. While they are at it, might as well legalize Khat. And then our taxi rides will be as exciting as they are in Djibouti and Ethiopia.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  7. Onikami

    i have been moderated multiple times already on this topic so hopes this works... our rights as citezens in this country are slowly being eroded to justify our penal codes. imprisonment is not the answer for anyone but the most heinous crimes. petty crimes such as drugs/theft should not be long term prison times but forced labor on our infrastructure. cannabis crimes are not even a petty crime unless it hurts someone else just like alcahol. pharm. companies do more harm by pressing LEGAL drugs into the hands of stupid people than drug dealers who just deal in pot.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  8. Jody

    As of 2009, the percentage of total prisoners that were in private prisons was around 8% according to (

    I'd love to know how Mr. Zakaria got from 8% in 2009 to "most" in early 2012. Not that I disagree with most points of this article, but why are journalists so bad these days? Why do they not even try to source their figures and instead rely on making statistics up off the top of their heads that support their article the best.

    He's not even honest with the incarceration rates of other nations. Comparing our "under correctional supervision" to what are actually in prisons elsewhere? There are 2 – 3 million in prisons in the US (yes, I think that is too many). Does that even come close to the tens of millions that China, North Korea, etc forcefully relocate and put into "work camps"? Does those not count because they are labeled differently by the nation that hosts them? Did Mr. Zakaria actually accomplish keeping a straight face when comparing the US to Stalinist Russia?

    How about that college kids vs. prisoners spending. So a kid that goes to school, does not have to live on their dime 100%, be guarded 24 hours a day, etc, should compare to what it costs to watch an often violent criminal 24×7 365 days a year? Forget the fact that college isn't even close to 365 days a year for any student, even if they go to every single semester available in their state.

    Mr. are no journalist. You are the entire problem with the media, and the fact that most of these mindless posts are blindly agreeing with you because they'd love to smoke marijuana without the threat of prison (which I'd like them to do also, just not at the cost of their integrity), shows a major problem with this country: the supposed "media" is much more dangerous than just about anything they report on.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      Thanks for those stats and thoughtful analysis!

      Having said that, Mr. Zakaria has a huge a single point PRO-ISLAMIC/anti-Semite agenda and in that pursuit he will show any country (incl. his current homeland the US, and his former homeland India) in a poor light.

      Also through such articles he tries to broaden his appeal to all Americans in general and liberals in particular to showcase his credentials as someone who cares deeply about this country, which he clearly does not.

      I have commented extensively on Mr.Zakaria on many of his articles and you may check them if you wish.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Memo

      In Arizona, the prisons are private.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  9. Dave

    The article was useless. It addresses weed but discusses prison populations in general. The author must have been high while he was writing it. It would have been more informative to find out how many prisoners were in prison for selling weed – and how much they had in their possession.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  10. Mike

    God bless the man that wrote this article. This is a police state. All cops are now are booking agents selling prison for the big money people behind it. Thing is they're not helping society anymore (police) they are not your friends. What friend tells you that what ever words come out of your mouth they Will use them against you. No matter how they have to manipulate what society hears or how ever they have to do it. They will use their education and experience to hurt you. Lie detectors are not able to be used in court because they are unreliable yet the police and prosecutor willl make sure that a cop will be on the witness stand to tell the jury when a person declines to use it.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  11. Mike

    More people in jail here than in the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin. Wow. Hey I don't want to be in a country like this. If there is a way anyone knows of tell me how I can denounce american citizenship and become a european citizen and live there and not here. I would do it in a heart beat. I am not and I repeat I am not proud of the police state this nation has become. Wow maybe the federal thought police r gonna get me and put me in a prison so someone can stick something up my kiester against my will or put a piece of metal in my torso 40 or fifty times just so I can be shown how much power they have.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  12. Ben

    So his take away is that there is a high rate because of privately run prisons? That is true because they save money. When dd a privately run prison force someone to commit a crime or write the laws that put them in prison. Ridiculous.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • its all about money ppl

      because the people that own the prison pay off the people that make the laws! Petty crimes that shouldnt put someone in prison do so that they can make more money are you slow or something? doing time for some pot is ridiculous when that 50k a year could go to better things.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Memo

      Our total spend on prisons has not gone down since we privatized them; it has gone up. Way up.

      April 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. Matt

    Prisons are full because the bleeding hearts have killed America, not the killers. Death row inmates need to be ushered in and taken care of. If America put inmates to death instead of hooking them up with their little killer friends we could stop the violence a lot sooner. If you think you will die for your crime, you are less likely to do it.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  14. greg

    It's amazing but the vast majority ignore the seriousness of the use of intoxicants. These substances, be they pot or alcohol, or whatever, affect the way the brain functions, they affect our thoughts. Yes, pot is a gateway drug, the gateway to hell. Think about it. There are a lot of murders in the world so should we decriminalize murder?

    April 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • gstlab3

      greg you sir are an idiot.

      shut up.

      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 8:50 pm |
  15. jocuri trenuri

    You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  16. JP Cox

    So how can we get to changing this??? I think most americans would see the logic in all this, but why isn't this coming up in the political forum? Someone needs to start taking the lead on this issue since it is clearly out of control. I spent 2 hrs in jail once for an unpaid ticket that I simply forgot about. They must have spent $150 checking me in, and then $100 checking me out, and they gave me a 4 course lunch. All that for an unpaid $120 ticket I paid immediately.

    With that sort of logic we will get no-where.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  17. kieran walsh

    To understand incarceration in the USA you have to understand that incarceration is big business.
    It generates massive amounts of 'donations' to politicians and an incredible amount of money for prison suppliers.
    Even political attempts at creating fear in the populace to get elected dwarfs in comparison to the fear created by this mega business prison complex. And as to pot being a mind altering drug possession of a joint should not be worth ten years to life. Talk about overkill.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  18. 1 Saint

    Here is the problem, the very same zealots that happen to be conservative are the ones that voted for these insane laws in the first place; 3 strikes and Mandatory Minimum. Now that they see that they have create a problem for themselves now they want to change the rules to the game. We told you people from the very beginning that these laws would not work but, you allow fear to control your every being so much so the yellow was showing on your backs. Why don't you people focus on your own issues and wrongs instead of trying to control others

    April 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  19. dontbow

    If your dumb enough to not know why this country has so many in prison then you need to leave because you are so ignorant and bound to be mugged. Do yourself a favor and get a clue. The culture of the US is just a mess and legalizing marijuana will make it even worse like drinking and driving.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  20. Tony

    Marijuana is not part of the PRISON population. Marijuana is a misdemeanor in most states. and usually does not even include
    jail time. It usually is a fine and with no incarceration. This segment is highly uninformed..

    April 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  21. JOKIBI

    A book called, "the New Jim Crow"by Michele Alexander hammers this point home. Legalize it, we'll be better off in the long run. You can't pay taxes when you're locked up. I will not be voting in November for a candidate that wont support this. too many people in prison for non violent crimes. Even Barack smoked weed and did blow when he could afford it. Dont believe me, google it. There is no way in hell he would have become president if he went to jail or prison for possession. This really is a no brainer, but our governement is clearly lacking in that department. Im not a user either.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  22. MJ

    Legalize it, tax the heck out of it and decriminalize it. The prison system is another corrupt big business that is broken.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Brad76

      The government could make a fortune taxing it, and put a major dent in the drug cartels income to boot. win/win
      The Democrats should take this issue on in my opinion.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  23. Brad76

    We've been discussing this issue for years, and yet nothing is ever done about it. What are we waiting for? Marijuana is harmless.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  24. Ariel Monzon

    the reason our incarceration rate is higher is because we have a higher conviction rate. our law enforcement isn't as easily corruptible.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  25. Max Powers

    It's funny that Pat found a way to blame it on the liberals. The war on drugs is a conservative darling. And white collar criminals make up a small part of the prison population. Rich people won't follow the law without some severe form of punishment.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  26. Robert

    Have we so soon forgotten the movie, "Midnight Express"? Somehow I can't help thinking our prisons would be a far greater deterant if they compared to the one shown in that movie, and not so much the country clubs they are today.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • jjque

      Hey!! Free healthcare, free food, free shelter..what-ta retirement program for all us!! Just don't be a white male guilty of child molestation!! The government and the justice system is using child molestation to incarcerate as many white males as possible to offset the black male population. You almost never hear of a black male child molester, even thought their numbers dwarf white male molesters. Someone should flag this racist form of justice.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Sharp

      Prisons are certainly not country clubs. Any things the inmates get like TV & sports equipment are more to keep them quiet & occupied than to coddle them. If your 'get tough' ideas were followed the prisons would need to double the number of guards. Just having their freedom taken away is severe punishment no matter how they are treated.

      April 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  27. Mark

    I agree with Pat Robison, and applaud him for going public with his thoughts on legalizing marijuana, but would carry it one step further and legalize all drugs. Some of the money save by making drugs legal that now goes to pay for courts, police departments, and prisons systems, could be used for drug treatment programs for those who abuse drugs, and become addicted. This would be similar to how we deal with those who abuse alcohol, and deal with that addiction.

    May the Flying Spaghetti Monster bless Pat Robinson for his comments on legalizing marijuana.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
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    You're in reality a just right webmaster. The web site loading pace is incredible. It seems that you are doing any distinctive trick. Also, The contents are masterwork. you've performed a excellent task in this subject!

    April 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  29. jjque

    Crime is America's biggest industry. I dwarfs any industry you can point to. You will never stop it as long a the government
    keeps feeding that industry. Even small towns import crime to keep their local governments fed with extra tax dollars and federal funds. Even the media fuels that fire with all of it's hatred.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  30. daca

    I don't think this is an easy problem, I don't recommend legalizing marijuana. This stuff really mess up our heads, there will be whole bunch of lunatic walking around, and will create an unproductive society.
    Hopefully law maker will think up a better solution. I recommend a solution of less jail time, that's all.

    April 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
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