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. jstout5111

    Incarceration is an effective way of keeping the U.S. unemployment rate, even at 9%, one of the lowest in the world. I haven't done the analysis, but there may be an inverse relationship between the rates of unemployment and incarceration.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  2. IronCelt

    I am sick to death of hearing that liberal professors are the reason for the skyrocketing cost of higher education. My state has lost population in the last thirty years, but the number of persons under "corrections supervision" here has tripled. Consequently, the state is about to do away with public higher education, making college an exclusive club for the wealthy who can afford private colleges–the only kind there will be.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  3. red

    Legalize weed, bring back Death penalty for the harder drugs,

    March 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  4. esoteric1

    THIS STORY IS BACKWARDS!!!!!!!! The reason we have so many people in jail is because in America we have the weird habit OF ENFORCING OUR LAWS. So is Pat Dumb A** Robertson saying that the laws we have should not be... well illegal? What is a "bad law" that people get put in jail for? What steeling "really small stuff?" Coupled with actually ENFORCING our laws we have GREAT FREEDOM to choose to BREAK THE LAW! in America. ...I mean this is the cornerstone of our country...we are a country guided by THE RULE OF LAW...not opinion or preference or religious belief or by how much money we have like 90% of the rest of the ain't rocket science.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Ryan

      The "law" is an opinion of a group of people.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
      • esoteric1

        you are dumb

        March 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  5. Steve

    I just did a bong hit.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  6. VET


    March 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  7. dd

    We try to stop smoking by banning it everywhere we can and we still have Liberals who need their mind altering smokes! What other countries do to stop the incarceration – they don't let stupid people exist.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  8. Ryan

    In 2007, 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug violations are serving time for marijuana offenses. In 2008, roughly 800,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses, out of 1,841,182 drug arrests in the United States; that's 47% of all drug arrests going to marijuana. And, the Department of Justice reported that 89% of those marijuana arrests were for simple possession, not manufacture or distribution. Reports have estimated the cost of these marijuana arrests at $1 billion a year. Currently, there are between 40-55,000 US citizens behind bars for marijuana.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  9. Wizard1234

    Legalizing recreational drugs will increase the incidence of DUI-caused accidents. Face it, we can't keep the drunks off the road, what makes anyone think we would do any better with any other habit-forming drugs? I have used marijuana and then driven and I will say this: I (and you) would be a lot safer after I had two or three beers than after I pulled down two or three good joints.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • wavejump1100

      wrong, most people drive slower and more cautiously when stoned. drunks drive faster and more reckless.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • dat cpa dude

      I smoke daily and 2 or 3 beers does not equal 2 or three joints. I'd say that 2 or three beers amounts to about a third of a joint of regular weed. Either way, driving under the influence of either is not something to take lightly. But alcohol is much, much worse to drive on.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • HumanNat

      Actually I have driven while being pretty stoned and I can tell you that I can drive through the McDonalds Drivetru just fine.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Tired of Paying

      States which have liberal mj laws see a decrease in DUI deaths as people switch from booze to mj. Please base your comments in facts and research.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  10. Ken

    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.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. Babblenumber

    Nation of Laws.
    Not true of many nations. (Unless you count growing heroin poppies and cutting women's lips off.)
    This is the same warped statistical %%(^&*7 reflected in the "FL justifiable homicides up by 200%."
    Sadly, the writers here (among others) seem to hope that everyone will just gobble up their golden words.
    So, some more statistics:
    Ten out of nine people have difficulty with math.
    100% of every man, woman, and child living today will perish in the foreseeable future.
    Of those killed by gunfire, 100% have been in contact with a firearm product.
    Of black Americans killed by black Americans, 0% have been killed by white Americans.
    And of course, after detailed questioning by CNN, CNN has been informed that more than 95% of those incarcerated do not belong there.
    In a private, non-scientific poll it has been determined that of those participating, only 20% believe CNN commentators to be functionally literate.
    These are frightening numbers.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Clay

    So let me understand the logic here. We had a large increase in the crime rate in the 70 & 80s. Laws were passed to increase penalties and three strike sentences imposed on repeat offenders. The crime rate has continued to drop since that time. Now you believe that we should lower sentences and have less people in prison. Perhaps, I'm just saying perhaps, you haven't correlated these facts into your position.

    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
    George Santayana

    March 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Clay Vollers

      Most of the drop in the crime rate is attributable (sp?) to the legalization of abortion and the corresponding reduction in the number of unwanted children being raised in poverty (no hope for the future so then turn to crime).

      March 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • wavejump1100

      crime rates have dropped because of better surveillance systems, security systems and because of better science DNA specifically. relaxing drug laws would not increase crime in fact just the opposite would occur.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  13. Clay Vollers

    Fareed...thanks for having a brain AND using it for something besides making a buck at the expense of others

    March 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  14. DE

    The ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, literally writes laws for Republicans. ALEC has a financial stake in anything that sends more people into the courts and the prisons, whether it’s exaggerated fear of racial minorities or Arizona’s draconian immigration law that followed an ALEC template almost verbatim.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  15. rh

    Why does this sound exactly like why there are so many people in college who don't belong and don't want to be there?

    Both situations are identical – others think they belong there.

    The inherent problem with marijuana is that it is essentially a pharmaceutical, and people shouldn't just take pharmaceuticals to "feel good". If you make marijuana legal and available without a prescription, why is Percocet only available with a prescription.

    That being said, it should be legal to smoke it in your own house, illegal to smoke it in public (it is a serious allergen for some people), and selling it should be regulated carefully. They also should make it illegal to perform certain jobs (cop, firefighter, taxicab driver, bus driver) when under the influence.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • HumanNat

      Ermm, that is a pretty messe dup law you have there. That is like trying to regulate someone's choices in life because they decide to drink some beer, or smoke a joint with their buddies.
      And it is actually very very very rare for someone to be "allergic" to Marijuana.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  16. Salim

    Thank you Fareed, You sure have guts to brings hot topics on the table.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  17. DevildDog

    Very well written article. I agree with the article. It seems as if we are the ones creating the criminals. We send people to jail for petty offenses and expect them to succeed with a criminal record when they get out? Of course they will look to crime to survive, they have no other option. The only criminals that should be behind bars are Murderers, rapists, child abusers, and thieves.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  18. Truus Teeuwissen

    If someone gets caught having a joint, police put that person in jail. It is no worse than alcohol. Why not legalize marijuana, decease crime and collect sales tax so each state will benefit. They are always looking for money. A win-win situation.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. The Big Enbe

    Wow, Pat Robertson said something that made sense. Well I'll be damned.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • xponetiial

      Why are you burners so brain dead? You're going to look like chit when you're 50 years old and drooling at the mouth smoking that crap, and then we're going to have to support you with our tax dollars.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
      • tad

        Regardless of the legality of drugs, people will continue to do them.

        The question is; do you want to pay to incarcerate them, or do you want to allow cheaper and more effective organizations to treat people for addiction?

        March 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
      • xponetiial

        Either way I don't want to support them. And you can't regulate an unlimited supply. You're in NeverNeverland if you think the drug cartels are going to roll over and play dead with legalization of marijuana, cocaine, and meth. Legalize those, too?

        March 31, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
      • Retired

        You are a complete idiot. Your illiteracy is astounding! Maybe you should try to limit your responses to things you actually know something about.

        April 2, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  20. Tim Bates

    Let me get this straight. We have laws against drug possession and use. Many people are violating those laws and going to prison so your point is that laws should be changed if they result in too many people in prison. I don't think so – what happens when too many murders are committed – we change those laws too. Since when is the number of people in prison a measurement of how effective the laws are?

    March 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Ryan

      People are not saying murder is OK. They are saying possessing marijuana is not a crime. They are looking to repeal an outdated law based on poor medical science.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Retired

      The topic is pot, a naturaly occuring plant, not murder. If pot is so bad why do our brains have built in receptors for using and dealing with cannabenol just like the receptors that deal with chocolate?
      No one would ever release murders in the real world nor has anyone but you suggested that. The reason our jails are over populated is because we live in a society where everything is blown out of proportion and everyone thinks if they don't like something a law should be created to prevent everyone from doing it. If everyone would start minding there own business we would be better able to see the things that really matter not all the petty bullsh** of trying to control every aspect of every person on earths life so they are as miserable as you.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  21. Mike

    Very easy answer-incarceration creates jobs. Lots of em.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  22. Ladislav Nemec Big Bear California

    Hard to believe Robertson understands something. The poll here indicates that over 80% readers are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Here in California we had the silly 'medical use' marijuana law that benefits a few enterpreneurs and propagates disregard for the law. I understand we will have a chance with a proposition basically legalizing marijuana.

    If Obama is re-elected, the Feds, hopefully, will not enforce the federal ban too vigorously. Even if the Republicans loose some House seats, the Congress is not ready to follow California and other states. Only a benign neglect (not by any Republican president, of course) can make rational behavior possible.

    With Robertson campaigning (???) for our proposition, we have to make some progress here. Of course, adding another mind altering substance to the existing legal ones is not a great idea but not only humans love to get hight.

    Currently, I feel bit better after a few cups of good coffee... President Romney will not able to do that.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • DaveL

      Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, at least if it analog.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  23. Rush Scot Susan

    could also be because in other countries the criminals roam free or even run the government (worse than in the US)

    March 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  24. Tr1Xen

    Let the potheads out. Problem solved.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Clay

      Those possesing or using small amounts of MJ are not sent to prison. No matter how many times you make this claim it is not true. Legalizing MJ will not reduce the prison population by even a fraction.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
      • Ryan

        The Department of Justice has reported that 89% of marijuana arrests are for possession. NOT manufacture and distribution. 2% of the US prison population is in prison solely for marijuana possession charges. That's 50,000 people, behind bars, for possession only, right now. Those figures do not include people who were arrested for possession in conjunction with another charge.

        March 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  25. joe

    The United States might as well be #1at something. Pretty hard to argue this is the freest country in the world.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • xponetiial

      If these stats are being compared to European countries like Sweden which has less people than the state of Massachusetts that is really retartded when the US has 300 million people.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
      • joe

        Read it again Sam.

        March 31, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
      • xponetiial

        Why should I take the word of Pat Robertson why prisons are overcrowded? He knows nothing.

        March 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  26. Sean

    Most people have no idea that the majority of prisons are privately run corporations. They have lobbyists just like the tobacco industry. Their product is incarceration, they want their jails filled to 90% + capacity at all times. The only way to do that since most people aren't murderers or rapists is to lock people up for minor offenses. Until the legalization movement gets the same or better financial resources that the prison lobby does it stands no chance. Lawmakers side with the highest bidder. The day Norml can donate more to senators than the prison lobby is the day we see legalization.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  27. wavejump1100

    no one should ever go to jail for possession of drugs. our so called free country is imposing the views of some on everyone. prisons should be to keep dangerous people away from everyone else. putting people in jail for using a drug that they enjoy is barbaric. at the very least drug offenders should be fined and given treatment but they should NEVER be locked up in prison.
    putting a person in jail for a marijuana offense is so wrong, such a waste of resources, so unfair that it upsets me just thinking about it.
    the land of the free has a higher percentage of its population in jail than any other country in the world. this is such a travesty we must change our drug laws.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • joe

      I know a guy that was thrown in jail because he was having a hard time paying child support due to loss of employment. The week after he went to court he was to start a new job. They threw him in jail anyway and he likely lost the new job.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
      • Bill

        The same line of thinking happened to a relative. He was paying off a fine @$65 per month to the court. Somehow the court did not record a payment properly. They issued a bench warrant and two officers showed up at his house to arrest him. He was not there, but his wife was. She showed the officers the receipt for the fine in question. Their response was "tell him to turn in self in – it may take a few days while he is in jail to sort things out". Figuring the cost to the taxpayers (me being one of them) , was nuts. The county gets paid $190 for the intake night, and about $50 for each night. Sending two officers out @ $23 per hour for an arrest comes to about $100. Now to his personal estate. Assuming he looses 5 day of pay or worse even his job. Why 5 days ? The sheriff's posted policy is that it may take up to 48 hours after bail is arranged or the charges are dropped to be released. So a few days while the court system corrects an accounting problem and up to a few more days while the sheriff's department pushes their paperwork through. No common sense. No one takes ownership of the problem in the system. Just put the guy in jail until we sort out the problem.

        March 31, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  28. Sean

    Mr. Robertson for once actually makes a reasonable, logical argument.... to bad he had to ruin it by trying to blame the problem on liberals.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  29. Captain Tom

    You hit the nail "Right" on the head. It is all about the money.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  30. todd

    stay with the story,, how many illegals are being counted in this story,,they make up the majority in our prisons costing millions of dollars each year!!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
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