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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