A prison system that already works

If facts had any bearing at all on national-security policy debates, the efficacy of the U.S. justice system in locking up convicted terrorists would shut down Republican arguments quickly.

In recent weeks, Congress has reignited an old debate, with some arguing that only military justice is appropriate for terrorist suspects. But military tribunals have proved excruciatingly slow and imprisonment at Guantanamo hugely costly — $800,000 per inmate a year, compared with $25,000 in federal prison.

The criminal justice system, meanwhile, has absorbed the surge of terrorism cases since 2001 without calamity, and without the international criticism that Guantanamo has attracted for holding prisoners without trial.

Under the system that both parties used to accept without question, hundreds of convicted terrorists, including many connected to international terrorism, have been tried, convicted, and sentenced through our justice system. These convicted terrorists receive lengthy sentences, are closely watched, have almost no contact without the outside world, and in cases in which they are released, “it appears extraordinarily rare for the federal prison inmates with past terrorist ties to plot violence after their release.”

The usual GOP talking points — the prisons will become magnets for terrorism, and dangerous radicals will escape into nearby communities, for example — have been proven ridiculous by real-world events.

The NYT piece raised a variety of issues, most notably about the Bureau of Prisons’ resistance to outside scrutiny of the inmates it houses and whether all of those convicted are a serious threat to public safety, but the political point here is that the right’s arguments — raised loudly during the recent debate over the Defense Authorization bill — are so wildly disconnected to unavoidable facts.

Republican policymakers, and even a few misguided Democrats, are eager to move cases out of an effective system, and into a dubious tribunal system. They want to move away from a prison system that’s worked without incident, and towards a worse and more expensive model.

There’s just no reason for this, short of politicians’ eagerness to appear “tough.”