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. Regulus

    Of course, the fact that the US is almost 40% non-white has no effect on crime in Zakaria's universe.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  2. freakanomics

    Currently more people die from prescription drugs than street drugs.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  3. Dustin Collett

    We should probably stop comparing ourselves to other countries.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  4. Bill

    In addition to the drug war, there's another very important factor. The US is a wealthy nation and most of the wealthy people are white. We also have a substantial percentage of blacks and hispanics who don't have money. This is like dangling meat in front of a hungry dog. The poor want money and will commit crimes to advance their goals. Our neighbors in Canada have a much smaller minority population and they have much less crime. The correlation is very clear.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Regulus

      Blacks and browns are more criminality-prone by nature.

      Their crime rates are much higher than those of poor whites.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  5. fofotavour

    This is really interesting how Mr. Robertson started by criticizing the system for criminalizing the drug users, yet somehow he ended up attacking the liberals for passing laws that involves the white color criminal. People that their acts has a dire effect on all of us. The beauty of this is that only a religious right winger can change the rule of cause and effect.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  6. outspoken

    So USA has terror problem, jihadi problem, incarceration problem, drug problem, gay-lesbian problem, racial problem,
    AIPAC problem, immiration problem, Enemy combatant problem. what else I am missing!!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  7. Marty

    Not taking into account that 33% of federal prisoners are illegal aliens, are you?

    March 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  8. The Big Enbe

    Decriminalize drugs and drug use will go down. This happens in other countries. It's the same old story with people -tell them they can't have something and they'll want it. Let them have it and the demand will go down.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  9. 1ofTheFallen

    I have never understood how it is more humane to throw someone in prison for years when some very harsh physical punishment (caining) can be adminstered and over with quickly. It might leave a mark but you have taken your punishment and can get on with your life after a few weeks or month.

    There are many ways to punishment other than expensive, life destroying prison. I think caining is a great punishment that leaves a very good impression that is not expensive and life destroying. Get caught for minor offenses and get a good caining. Get caught again and get a few more additional wacks.

    Other countries learned long ago that physical pain is a good deterant without costing taxpayers hugh sums and taking peoples lives away for years.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • The Big Enbe

      Hahaha funny but I think I agree.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  10. wavejump1100

    drunks run stop signs. stoners wait for them to turn green.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Rich Head

      ROFL!!! Thanks for making my day!

      April 1, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  11. Dumfounded

    Too much time on Fareed's hands. Huge assertions; no facts, such as:
    1) What percentage of today's prison population were incarcerated for "white collar" crime?
    2) What facts (even one) support the assertion that prison population is high because it is "big business"?

    March 31, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  12. Sark

    "Prisons are a big business. Most are privately run." Wrong! Only 200 prisons are privately run, and there are over 1200 prisons. These guys should not be able to get away with just writing whatever. They need to be held accountable as journalists. Always do your fact checks guys, even if your reading a news article.

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

      And for the record, I’m actually FOR the legalization of marijuana. Just hate to see people talking bulls**t.

      March 31, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  13. Albert Friday

    The hidden message is do what the other countries do; execute the felons. Then the prison population would be in line with the rest of the world.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Keksi

    So CNN is STEALING MY IDEAS.I was one that pointed to this for years.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  15. AlienShark

    I am ashamed to live in a society that keeps millions of people trapped in cages and goes to great lengths to torture them in every way that they can get away with. I believe one day true justice will prevail and the people responsible for this will be held to a higher account for every detail in their crimes against humanity.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  16. TotallySirius

    The inmate problem is a problem of too many laws written by politicians more interested in stuffing their campaign coffers and getting reelected than the public benefit derived from the laws they passed..
    Every politician wants to be able to point to their legislative record and say "Reelect me, I am tough on crime, look at the stiff prison terms I put on___ (insert any petty annoyance)___"

    March 31, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  17. mendacitysux

    Legalizing drugs would drop the price for users even with the taxation of it. Taxing these drugs as well as elimntaing the tax exemption for all "religious" organizations (doubt Mr Robertson is for that cutting into his million dollar houses and luxury cars) would provide an influx of money for those of us worried about the national debt. Providing it would actually be used to do that.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  18. Drug War

    Most people in this country that kill someone else, or themselves, or both, are messed up on PRESCRIPTION drugs.

    The real war on drugs should be directed against the pharmaceutical companies.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Andy

      I'm sorry, but I don't believe that there are a lot of people in jail because of marijuana. I know people that steal cars etc. and get caught. They get a number of chances before they are put in jail for any amount of time. I think they are in jail for repeated offenses. I suspect this topic, as presented, has been oversimplified.

      March 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  19. Jim Weix

    Wake up America! Our government is your enemy. They create wars so some people get rich, but kill you. The entire justice system is designed to support government minions and generate revenue.
    We are allowing the government to take away our freedoms.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  20. Hanes Hays

    Do The Math

    If 7.1 million Americans are incarcerated as per Fareed, and the US population as of 2011 is 313 million, that means roughly (mentally calculating) 2% and some change of Americans are in prison. However, in the next paragraph he states that we have 760 prisoners per 100,000 people. That, on the other hand, is just .76 percent, a difference of three-fold. Disappointing, as Fareed doesn't seem to be doing scientific research.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • jimbo

      The article states there are 7.1 million people under correctional supervision, that includes those behind bars and those who are on parole, house arrest....
      Fareed did the research you must have missed a couple of words in that sentence.
      Either way the prison system is a corporate racket that is a government funded cash cow.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
      • Hanes Hays

        Thanks jimbo –
        You are 100% correct – I missed the difference between those incarcerated and those in the system. Bottom line, though, is that it is a racket. Guess I'm just sensitive to journalist pushing buttons for readership, thanks again

        March 31, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
      • Hanes Hays

        PS –
        Apologies Fareed, I enjoy your work.

        March 31, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  21. Brian

    Pat Roberson said something sensible? What is the world coming to?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  22. jim

    The fact that the government could make some tax money on the sale of marijuana is a pi$$ poor reason to legalize it. A better one is simply because it is relatively harmless and will be used whether it is legal or not.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  23. bozo

    Prisons must have product... product = young black and hispanic men.. no product, no profit.. Way past time to get the corporations out of corrections!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  24. d

    I guess the author should ask the Chinese what they do with their criminals and ask for help with ours. That would be the obvious way to reduce the percentage in prison.

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

      Great idea – let the Communists take care of our prisoners??? How fast do u want us to go broke???

      March 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  25. sgurdog

    The war on drugs is a complete failure for us, the taxpayers and citizens. It has been a boondoggle for the prison industrial complex. While this war has cost our states trillions of dollars and robbed us of the ability to educate the population with reason and occupational skill, it has also caused great harm to other countries that are lobbied by our very own federal government for the military industrial complex who want to sell arms and technology to them, mostly with American taxpayer subsidies...Mexico is a perfect example of what our intervention has born. This is also a way to further disenfranchise huge demographics of people who lose their right to vote. This is a sinister and corrupt form of government welfare as they continue to redistribute wealth of this nation and many others into the pockets of sick industries that should be locked in their own prisons. I'm an unabashed Liberal but I feel every so called Liberal president including Obama have shown no stomach or backbone or leadership in this matter.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  26. infowars

    visit infowars dot com or prisonplanet dot com

    March 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  27. RDS

    Prisons being big business isn't the reason we have so many behind bars. Tough on crime to get re-elected is. The judges decide who is going to prison. If they don't send the criminals to prison then they don't get re-elected.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  28. Casey277

    Well, to some extent the article seems to be trying to conflate marijuana illegaility with over-crowded prisons, to suggest that other countries with lower imprisonment rates are as beset with immigration eagerness as the US or with domestic violence, gang crime, or multiculturalism's incoherence of any kind of social protocol that could govern a lot of the mishaps we criminalize and would prefer not happen (and therefore use prison to control.) Ask yourself this: if the high-school parking lot becomes so fetid with the punky smell of weed, are we going to be going toe to toe academically with the Chinese scholars who are going to dominate the world of science and then the world?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  29. pbsat

    "High Priest of the religious right"? Looks like Fareed has some strong prejudice about them. Religious aren't always right and no one has appointed Pat Robertson as the "High Priest" and he is no representative of the "religious".

    March 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  30. Michael

    "Follow the Money" – as soon as big business can find a way forward to enrich themselves with THC sales – they will move forward with Congress and flip the necessary switches (campaign contributions). As for people incarcerated or required to pay bribes to the legal system to avoid incarceration for smoking marijuana – Pathetic! As for the "dangerous substance" argument – if that were true – Congress would be lined up to force compulsory rehabilitation on tobacco addicts to free them of perhaps the most addictive and harmful drug known killing nearly 500,000 Americans each year. I am far more likely to die from "second hand smoke" than at the hand of a so called "terrorist". Incidently, I do not smoke anything.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
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