In the wake of Pat Robertson’s statements about legalizing marijuana, Fareed Zakaria writes on CNN.com about the war on drugs and the mass incarceration problem it has spawned. As always, the numbers are just astonishing to see.
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…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.
It’s bankrupting state and local governments. It’s destroying families. It’s corrupting our entirely system of law enforcement. It’s undermining the Bill of Rights. It’s enforced in a blatantly racist manner. It’s time to end it. Now.