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. Willard M. Romnage

    I have heard that Mitt Romney will criminalize tea, coffee, cola drinks and Red Bull if he makes POTUS. Since they are addictive and ungodly they should not be consumed by God fearing masses. It is not too much to ask. And high caffeine causes anger and depression he says. One must consume WATER! God has given us WATER, not cola drinks and other ungodly things.

    April 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  2. Dhil Kon

    It's really amazing that public opinion about this has completely flipped, obviously not a scientific poll but 50,000 people who read this article said it should be legal. I think it's only a matter of time before it's decriminalized or legalized.

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  4. Don

    I hope they take out the loophole of "paraphenalia" too. Sorta like Chicagos law on gun ownership. They (Chicago) don't arrest you for owning a gun, they get you for not registering it. Which they don't allow you to do.

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    As a legal patient in CA, I can attest to the fact that medicinal marijuana is the only pain reliever I can take without the fear of overdose or developing a 2nd illness while tring to cure the reason for medication. I dont even have to expose myself to pulmonary issues, since I can eat my medication.

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  12. shelley1laysi

    What a upside down way of much greed and waste is that, because not even enough of the money so called spent on prisons or the product of is used on rehabilitation or not used to better the person/product and or reduce the high return rate of prisoners because they are the product... most of the profits is going into pockets of the keepers, judges, etc and all that need to keep it a big business for profits...backwards American in that area we really as citizens keep our blinders on and don't make enough noise about the corruption of the system...not something most of us want to think about when it comes o reform or restricting our system and getting the big greed hands out of's too ugly and scarey I think for us regular Americans to want to know...including me... and that is not a good thing because it is a big huge drain on our tax dollars that could be better spent on a wiser and better tomorrow. We could say the system is kinda like a runaway rapist gone wild from one end of our country to the other.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  13. Don Thorpe

    The people's voices should be running the U.S.A not the greedy wealth. Money is an evil item when it isn't in check,as well as the federal government. Crazy cannabis patents and schedule one nonsense should be corrected, seems like a better way than a stupid war on drugs. Get the eraser out and fix the wrong. Free the world and the plant.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  14. Simon Hadfield

    Its more important to avoid getting caught than to obey the laws. We can stop the madness! We all get jury summons. Next time your on a jury for a non violent crime vote not guilty. Next time your in court for a non violent crime plead not guilty and refuse to give up your right to speedy trial. If everyone did this the court system would collapse in a matter of weeks.

    July 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
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