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. Smot Poker

    the american government is never supposed to tell us what we can and can not do to our own bodies.. how can we possibly have true freedom and liberty if the government arrests us for simply exploring our own consciousness, while hurting absolutely nobody in the process? the only situation in which marijuana kills people, is in its prohibition... if marijuana were legal, taxed, and available in stores, guess what... the drug cartels wouldn't be killing each other to corner the market, and they wouldn't be killing innocent bystanders either.

    and on the issue of our prisons being filled... it is that way because people are making money off of it.. privately owned prisons sell their shares on the stock market based on how many prisoners they have... so in the days of bribing politicians with lobbyists, is it so hard to believe that obsolete legislation has been left in place to benefit those who stand to make the most money from it?

    April 3, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  2. Yehuda

    Why do some argue for Marijuana to be decriminalized but not legalized? Obviously the consequences have not deterred marijuana use, so we should fine people in order to extract more money from our citizens? Clearly the war on drugs, and especially Marijuana, have not worked, so if its money the government wants legalize it, regulate it, and tax it. Period.

    April 3, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. Skittles35

    This is all about money. Not drugs. The politicians are totally responsible for this. My husband is in prison wrongfully for a crime he did not do. The prison he was sent to 20 years ago had a working dairy farm on it that the prisoners worked. 5 years ago the cows were donated to Cornell University and a corporation took over the milk contract. In upstate New York after the jet era in the 1960's people no longer went to upstate New York to vacation because the whole world was open up to them. This pushed the upstate region that depended on tourism to look at other means of bringing industry to the region. New York passed the Rockefeller laws that created a huge influx of prisoners in need of prisons. New York's whole upstate economy is dependent on prisons. The new governor knows this and spoke of it in his state of the state address saying we can no longer imprison one part of the population to give others jobs. He went on to close 7 prisons. When you drive upstate their are billboards with prison guards in uniform with children standing next to them saying save our daddies jobs. So basically keep laws in place to keep people in prison so these men that are generation after generation of correctional workers stay employed. People ask why am I complaining he closed 7 prisons. They were 7 medium facilities that are transitional prisons that help bring men back into society. New York state has a huge wrongful conviction rate with two of the stories just this month on Dateline NBC. People don't care because they don't think it will effect them. With the current rate of incarceration it will soon be 1 out of 15 people in prison. Many wrongfully. So unless you have an extra $ 200.000 in the back to hire an attorney because the court appointed ones work for the court and their only purpose is trying to get you to accept a plea bargain this can happen to you. Or someone you love.

    April 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Czech Stamp

      Why don't you leave the US then? Don't you believe in life after US? So, how does everyone survive here in Europe? Come to Europe with your family and liberate themselves from the hyper-democratic totalitarianism. We have a lot of space in the Czech Republic and our morality has never been on Mayflower.

      April 5, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • guy christopher

      I am in agreement with your statements. My son is serving two years in an Oregon prison, for growing 35 marijuana plants; mostly for my use, in controlling my pain, from two terminal illnesses; Chrone's desease and Diabetes type 2 on insulin. I must take heavy medication (Norco) every five hours around the clock. If I miss a dose, I go into an unbearable pain attack. Marijuana smoke, alleviates the pain, until the pills take effect. It is a God given herb, to the people; let us have it; why does the 3 pound meth smuggler from Mexico, get less time (1 1/2 years) then my son; for growing pain relieving plants, why is our prisons, full of drug offenders? The stock of the prison, is sold on Wall street; and the more prisoners, the more money the investors make; and would you believe; some of the prisons are owned by judges; and other officials? This is true. Please, vote for legalization totally for all purposes, the possession, growth, use, sale or delivery of cannibus. It IS TIME.

      I am in complete agreement with your statements. My son is in prison for almost two years, for growing 35 plants, in Oregon, to aid in my round the clock pain, from two terminal illnesses. Two years, for growing 35 God given plants; that cure cancer; and assist in so many ways, pain and otherwise, to patients. Another inmate, is in, for 1 1/2 years; for trying to bring in from Mexico, in a compartment of a gas tank, 3 (three) pounds of Meth.....What the hell is going on. You get more time for growing medical plants, then the guy who brings in three pounds, of POISON???? Why is my son serving time in a prison, with murders, rapists, bank robbers; violent offenders....for such a "crime" of growing marijuana.....and, for his sick father, me...??? God help us.

      April 6, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  4. Jethro

    Why does Robertson always have to take a swipe at liberals? Aren't they the ones he would usually call dope-smoking hippies? Make up your mind, man. The biggest people behind the war on drugs were Nixon, Reagan, and Bush the elder. Not a liberal in the bunch. Few people in law enforcement would want that war to end, either. It brings in money for equipment, more personnel, and special training, while also providing a convenient vehicle for giving more sweeping powers to police. It's as much a cash cow as the war on terror.

    April 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  5. BrettinMN

    One of my favorite quotes of late 2011: "Having Pat Robertson tell you you're too extreme is a little like having Lady Gaga tell you to dial it back on the crazy outfits"

    April 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  6. Ric Flair

    I would change my religion if Pat opened the door for pot's legalization. My friend Bob Marley, his friends and I support you all the way. Hell yeah.

    April 3, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  7. DVD Burner Free

    Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly loved browsing your weblog posts. After all I'll be subscribing in your feed and I hope you write once more soon!

    April 4, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  8. Silverhammer

    So, genetically selected strains of Marijuana are natural drugs and are healthier than the "unnatural" products of yeast fermentation? Really? So all bread products are less natural than strains of plant selectively bred for THC content? THC is a toxin, as is alcohol. Drop the crap about one being better than the other. The literature illustrating the benefits of alcohol are plentiful. Marijuana has its health applications, as does digitalis (also natural and organic). But I do not suggest taking digitalis recreationally. Hemlock is also natural and organic. Too much of anything is a bad thing, whether it is cheeseburgers, alcohol or marijuana. Back to the article, kudos for Pat Robertson for taking a stand that makes sense.

    April 4, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  9. monkeypants

    I love how religious people say that their god is infallible and he gave us all things on Earth to use, except marijuana, he didn't intend for us to use that.

    April 4, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  10. elmcclell

    One of the facts in this article is both inaccurate and misleading. First, the state of California built at least 2 college campuses since 1980: CSU-San Marcos and UC Merced. Second, it repurposed 2 existing developments into new college campuses to create CSU-Channel Islands and CSU-Monterey Bay. The data is used in a way meant to imply that the state hasn't invested in education more than enough to create 1 new college since 1980; in reality, it's created at least 4. Granted, that's still a far cry from 21 new prisons, but at the very least you should use accurate data, and not mislead readers with it.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • MG.

      I wonder how many of the prisoners in those 21 new jails are racist hispanics that shoot innocent black youth like in FLA.?

      April 5, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  11. Euro

    Fareed Zakaria is a Muslim terrorist, his a ticking time bomb

    April 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  12. 4tran

    Learn from China: shoot everyone with over 50g of cocaine. No more prison problem!
    Hurr Durr

    April 5, 2012 at 12:59 am |
  13. Dr. Know

    Why even argue with brain damaged marijuana smokers? Kinda pointless...

    April 5, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  14. Vgoodness

    This is important information. Too bad CNN used Pat Robertson as a talking point and example, since he hurts the cause by polarizing the subject blaming the wrong people for why we have to many prisons. It is Reagan's War on drugs "just say no" mantra that got us here and the "white collar criminals" that are never held accountable who own or are investors in the prisons while bleeding Americans dry... I think Liars like Robertson needs to be in prison with his white collar bed fellows.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  15. Robert Toth

    Regulate, legalize and tax it, just like we do alcohol & tobacco. Wipe out the national debt!! While we're at it: revise the drug sentencing laws, too.

    April 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  16. Adam

    As a native Californian, I am worried about the state of affairs. The corrections union is the strongest and has all of Sacramento in its pocket. If this is not addressed, things will not change. The failed war on drugs helps fuel this fruitless "tough on crime" crusade. As far as Pat Roberson is concerned, this is a problem that was created by Republican leadership during the 1980s. But at least he is shining light on the problem.

    April 5, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  17. Aurangzeb Alamgir

    Priests like Pat Robertson are selling the Americans 'Licence to Sin' – where one doesn't have to keep the Commandments because 'someone' have already paid off all your credit bills.

    This sickening and perverted ideology actually sinking the American ship deep down into the abyss of iniquities along with Pat Robertson's club of 700 Sinners.

    April 5, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  18. guy christopher

    i AM a 75 year old male, and have smoked marijuana for 49 of those years. I have two terminal deseases, Diabetes and Crohn's desease; and have extreme pain around the clock; prbably for the rest of my life. I take a heavy pain medication, Norco, every five hours. Sometimes, if I am late a pain attack takes place, that is nearly unbearable I take the medication immediatly, but marijuana helps alleviate the pain, until the pain medication kicks in; about 1/2 hour ; It is such a harmless herb, compared to tobacco or alcahol....and I feel those giant companies (big pharms and tobacco and alcahol producers) are to blame, for marijuana not being legalized. And, as far as O'bama...Ha...what a laugh; he says anything, to get elected; and then turns against his own promises; and voters. Shame on him; he will not make a second term; he is too controled by the "money" lobbiest's, for those large companies. He does not seem to care for what the people of this country, want, and demand. He is a puppet. and, probably a closet smoker himself.

    April 6, 2012 at 4:20 am |
  19. Brian

    This is the most glaring case where the government will not listen to the will of the governed, nor do they invite their comment. Its antidemocratic and antifreedom. The people are simply governed without their consent on this issue.

    April 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Vazir Mukhtar

    We saw the result of prohibition: the rise of criminal enterprises. And yes, when prohibition was repealed we saw an increase in the abuse of alcohol, the harm it does to individuals, families, and society. Why was alcohol legalized? In part because the haves enjoyed drinking and preferred not sneaking around to do so. In part because the cost of enforcing the ban was incommensurate with the results achieved. Remember Al Capone was not tried and convicted as a bootlegger, a conspirator in murder, but for tax evasion.

    What has the war on drugs accomplished? Some ballyhooed successes. How much has the return on investment been? If anyone in the government knows, I sense more than a reluctance to divulge the figures.

    Now, it will be argued that marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine, crack, you name it. Perhaps. But what about tobacco? How many tobacco users have died of diseases brought on by smoking, sniffing, or chewing since and despite warnings displayed on tobacco containers sold at retail? And has it been a gateway product?

    What is the incidence of deaths from the use of marijuana? If legalized, marijuana can be sold legally for less than illegally and can be taxed as well. Undercutting the cartels with a better, cheaper product can be an effective way of driving them out of the market.

    Whether other controlled substances - cocaine, heroine, crack, meth - should be legalized and taxed I leave to others; for the issue presents more difficulties than does marijuana. At one level, the simple answer of legalizing everything that the cartels import into the US appears to be a way to put the cartels out of business; to corner the market as Henry Ford did with the Model T (provided the color you wanted was black). That solution raises issues that, as I wrote above, I leave to others to discuss. But legalizing marijuana is a no-brainer (no pun intended). Besides, it's a lot better for encouraging respect for the law than selective enforcement of the prohibition on marijuana.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Don

      I'm sick of hearing weed is a gateway drug. I've done it for 40 years. I AM NOT a heroin addict (never did it). I'm NOT a coke fiend. Even though I've been through THAT stage. So, the gateway argument doesn't fly with me.

      April 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  21. Pat

    Drugs are an excuse and are only the tip of the iceberg the problems in the US go far deeper.

    April 8, 2012 at 4:41 am |


    The caller ID on Eman al-Obeidi's smart phone says private number. She guesses the call is from a fellow Libyan and promptly silences the ringer.

    "I think the halal meat seller gave out my number," she says, picking up another piece of sizzling beef fajita. "That's why I don't buy halal meat anymore."

    April 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  23. Josie

    I have never done any "hard" drugs, I have tried weed, and still will once in a while (think like twice a year). I know others that use it because it kills their pain better then prescription drugs and they can make the choice to use it or not (unlike getting hooked on prescription drugs). Funny I can go months without taking a hit, days without alcohol...and yet I smoke cigerettes and those are truly addicting and legal. People grow up, if you don't want it then don't use it. No one is forcing you too. Plus think of ALL the money the states and even federal government can get from the legel sales of this. Though I would regulate it like alcohol (21 on up, etc.)

    April 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  24. Raammson

    Treat it like a traffic ticket fine people for using it. Don't imprision them.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  25. Daniel

    I'll tell you what Fareed Z. has become one of my favorite 'editorial commentors' just excellent. This topic like so many others well researched, well reasoned, and very well spoken. Thanks Fareed!

    April 9, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  26. Louis B

    I am sorry student, we cant help you with education because we have to spend US$ 50.000 a year on a guy that goes to jail for smoking a joint,,,,,,,,,

    April 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
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