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. Because

    I would say it's because we have so many descendants of slavery. The slaves that were brought to the US and sold were from tribes that caused many problems in Africa. These traits have continued throughout the generations. They have trouble following authority.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Stevan

      LOL your saying bad behavior is genetic? Ok Hitler.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
      • Because

        No, I'm saying it's a "learned" behaviour and you learn best from your parents, etc. If they set bad examples such as poor speech or poor behaviour then you will learn it. This has been proven by both good and bad people for ages. Also, there's always the possibility that each race of people are developed in part by their place in the life cycle of their own race.

        March 31, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • BlackHeywood

      You know little about American history I guess it's badge of honor to be ignorant.How unfortunate for you.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  2. ray1950

    I never killed one person and I spent a considerable amount of time "back in the day" rather stoned (and often very stoned). Just thought I would add my 2 cents worth.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Stevan

      Thats good, but then how do you explain the parents too "stoned" to take care of their kids. Google Drug addict lets baby starve. Or should we as Americans just allow that to happen?

      March 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
      • A-Realist

        Stevan, you can't be serious! The number of children harmed by parents who drink exceeds the number harmed by parents who smoke pot by a factor in the hundreds, if not thousands.

        March 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  3. john d

    robertson can love weed all he wants, he is still a bigot in my book.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  4. jcom

    Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, recently stated that there is no way marijuana will become legal under Obama's watch. If actions speak louder than words, then the federal crackdowns on dispensaries in California and Colorado (with more promised to come in Oregon, Washington, etc)speak volumes!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • ray1950

      Or ... we could just end Obama's watch in November.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  5. Sagebrush Shorty

    Perhaps we have more criminals than other countries?

    March 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • rmtaks

      Being a criminal is a subjective term, determined by anyone with enough power to make that judgement. It is not something that is objectively true or false. We have more criminals because powerful people decided we have more criminals.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  6. Robert Davis

    Thank you Fareed. Turn it up.


    March 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  7. Mark

    Pat Robertson was correct that drugs and a prison nation are a problem – but his reference to "liberals" is typical and asinine at best – it was Nixon that first coined the term, and Reagan that brought it into full force – its unfortunate that so strong a statement be muddied by partisan nonsense.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  8. Big Ron

    hey keefer how about the doctor that has been drinking alcohol before he gets an emergency call to do a surgery?I honestly believe that 99% of the people that have jobs as important as a doctor/surgeon would not be doing drugs or drinking alcohol at all.They have too much responsibility and too much to lose if they were.At least I would hope so.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  9. Rich

    Marijuana may not be 'good', it may even be a little 'bad' BUT,

    There is no way that imprisoning someone for it's use, possession or sale is justifiable.


    NOBODY that supports imprisonment for marijuana use, possession or sale has any right to criticize Hitler or Stalin – because they are very close to being as bad!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  10. WOT

    The world laugh at us for letting grown men do nothing but eat, lift weights, and sleep behind bars. who is getting rich off of this injustice (help CNN)!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  11. bagh

    The story misse the point of Hard Time vs Soft Time.
    10 year prison time in America equals 1 year in my country. Any one that has ever been to prison in my country will never accept going back.

    In America, TVs – Gyms – Monpoly – daily food.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  12. Jennifer

    Definitely! If we tax it like we tax cigarettes and alcohol we wouldn't have a budget crisis!!!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  13. Sagebrush Shorty

    If each segment of American society committed crimes in proportion to their percentage of the population then we would be about average. I tried to word that as nicely as possible.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  14. Steve Snyderman

    Not only should marijuana be made legal, we should legalize all drugs with criminal penalties including heroin and crack. Put the drug dealers out of business. Eliminate the DEA and move the resources to the FDA to administer medical substances and procedures.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  15. lightbearerusa

    Marijuana should be legal. It makes common sense. Prisons for profit is a crime.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  16. HAWAII

    Yes, prison IS Big Business. So is Welfare Breeding, Poor Over-Breeders are worth 100s of BILLIONS to corporations. They do not care it it's the Tax Payers money, hence NO US-MX Border, NO Welfare Reform.
    Another point, to be fair, Why even have a jail in R'Wanda, El Salvadore...etc.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  17. Fiona

    I take issue with Pat Robertson's "statistics" in the pull quote. It's meaningless to lump the USA in with countries that routinely choose execution over incarceration (China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.). - whether officially or otherwise - and the many, many lawless countries where criminals have the upper hand (numerous African nations, Haiti, Mexico, Russia...). In the US,mew have a reasonably fair, if imperfect, court system and an ironclad bill of rights. You could say that our high incarceration rate is proof that our system works.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  18. FixThisMezz

    Fareed, you are the real deal. God bless you for focusing on these most critical issues of our country. The statistics are shocking that we are spending more on our prison system than on higher education.

    Wake up America !

    March 31, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  19. whoopitydoo2

    Once again, our liberal, America hating muslim lover Mr. Zakaria, has missed the point. Big business isn't causing people to commit crimes. People are committing crimes on their own. Robertson is an idiot too. No one, I say again, NO ONE is behind bars in the US for 10 years for possession of one joint. If you liberals believe that, you're brainwashed! Most cops won't even arrest someone for marijuana b/c of all the paperwork and lack of punishment. I can't believe CNN would continue to publish Zakaria's articles. He's so full of it in every thought, it amazes me. TYPICAL LIBERAL...BIG BUSINESS IS THE PROBLEM, NOT THE PERSON/PEOPLE DOING THE BAD THINGS! It's always someone else's fault!

    Here's the solution: make prisons similar to what they have in Europe and I'll guarantee that our crime rates drop. Let criminals stay cold and eat bread, rice, and water, with no showers, weight rooms, televisions, radios, etc... Then, see how many crimes are committed.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  20. rodbinnc

    I told you. And now let you be warned. As soon as the rich find a way to turn humans into food, we will be on the rich's' menu at the finest eating establishments. That will get around that annoying taboo of "cannibalism". We are just cows in waiting to be slaughtered for gullets of the 1%. They are greedy and hungry.......and without souls.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Nodack

      Soylent Green is People!

      April 1, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • Patrick

      yup, let us all go back to the caves like your brethren and bow to the east five times a day to avoid any constructive thoughts we may have.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  21. Spiritrider

    Maybe we don't legalize marijuana, but at the veryy least we should decriminalize it. Make it a violaion like a speeding ticket. If we still want a public policy that discourages its use, then a serious fine will do this.

    Putting people in jail for simple possession is simply insanity. Doing something over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity. Exactly what about what we have been doing is or has ever worked.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  22. TewksburyBob

    I am not sure it should be legal but I am sure you should not go to jail for it. Put a fine on it and be done with it.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  23. tingle007

    Stoners are lazy and don't want to work. I say the punishment should be community service. Prison just won't fix them.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • travislg

      You are completely wrong. I myself am a smoker and I have a job, a family, a house, and a great life. Many people, probably even some you know, are smokers. Doctors, lawyers, judges, cops, these are just a few examples of people who use marijuana. Your view is a bit biased.

      April 2, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  24. One_Who_Knows

    It's not just the drug laws that's gone crazy in America. It's just about anything and everything. Something as simple as a minor traffic stop can turn into an arrest, left up to the "discretion" of the cop who stops you. In some neighborhoods, primarily poor and minority, walking down the sidewalk or standing on a corner a certain time of day or night can lead to an arrest. That creates that revolving door, that once you're arrested for one thing you're likely to be arrested for another and another. Especially in the poor white and poor minority communities. Because they're the most like to be arrested for minor, and even made up charges, and the least likely to be able to fight those charges or pay off fines. Fines which can lead to future arrests or the denial of jobs or being able to join the military. Unpaid court fines can keep people from being allowed to join the military. It's a trap that once you're in you can't escape. The more you struggle to escape the more you become entangled in the trap.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  25. Dionysus

    Here's an interesting factoid. Marijuana is in the same genetic family as hops. You can graft hops onto marijuana roots,and the result is a plant that looks, smells, and tastes like hops, but has a natural THC content like pot. Admittedly hops are rank, and no one in their right mind would ever smoke them, but just imagine the righteous beer you could brew up from them. Drew Carey, who owns the trademark on the name "Buzz Beer" could make another fortune.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  26. alex

    Put this this in your pipe and smoke it govt/drug companies... I have tried every illegal drug out there (heroin, xtc, meth, coke) and never got addicted to anything until I tried Oxycontin. Stuck on it for years now 🙁

    March 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  27. freakanomics

    This article is complete rubbish

    Legalization would not decrease crime as very few people are in jail just for drugs... usually drug charges, according to research, are thrown in to increase jail time for more egregious offenses. The increase in prisons is due to the US more effectively incarcerating criminals, not the cause of it. The reason, crime has significantly dropped in the last few decades is because of more police, more bad guys getting caught, and more incarcerations. The underpinnings of why criminal behavior is more ubiquitous in the US vs Denmark has to do with the vast difference in the population who compose these two countries, not in the funding of prisons.

    That being said, I am pro legalization, as no one should be in jail just for drugs, IMO, and legalization would decrease income streams for criminal types and increase tax revenue.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Scandalous

      you clearly did not read the entire article......and Yes, MOST PEOPLE IN JAIL ARE THERE FOR DRUG CHARGES

      March 31, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  28. Matt

    It is HEROIC to draw attention to this crisis, THANK YOU Fareed. If we're not careful, this police state mentality will spiral out of control. I usually don't use words like "evil", but thats exactly what our "justice" system is.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  29. The land of the free

    In the land of the free the top 1% of population accounts for 25% of all US personal income, whilst the bottom 1% accounts for 25% of planet earths prison population. What a nation!

    March 31, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  30. Mark G.

    The illegality of Marijuana is causing much more harm that the plant itself. There is obviously a big demand for it and so people have organized to produce it and distribute it. There is also millions of dollars being exchanged with no taxes paid. The marijuana produced has no health controls and so often it is contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers. It`s distribution has no control and so there is nothing to stop it from getting into the hands of young people who have not yet fully developed into adults. The huge profits have lead to gang rivalry which has resulted in rip-offs and killings just like in the days of alcohol prohibition. Marijuana does have some negative side affects but overall it is a safe drug and brings many people joy and creativity. For the ill, it is the only thing that gives them relief and brings some happiness into their lives. To incarcerate people for using pot is draconian and medieval. Those responsible for the "war on drugs" have brought pain and suffering with their outrageous prohibition laws and these people should be identified and sued. It is time for peace in the US, not more domestic war. Legalize it, control its production and distribution and tax its sales and put that money into helping anyone who has a problem with it. It is time people marched in the streets over this.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
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