Political Animal


December 11, 2011 11:15 AM A prison system that already works

By Steve Benen

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.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on December 11, 2011 11:19 AM:

    "...$800,000 per inmate a year..."

    Holy S#!t!!! Are they running a Sandals honeymoon resort down there?!?!

  • c u n d gulag on December 11, 2011 11:54 AM:

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

    And instead, they look like chickensh*ts!

    Terrorists can't be put in regular prisons - they have special mental powers that either overcome their CO's and allow them to escape, or melt 12 foot-thick steel reinforced concrete.
    Or something like that

    And then where would we be, huh?
    In big trouble, that's where, Mister!

    It's a well known fact that the only thing vaguely resembling kryptonite to these people, which makes Gitmo the ideas prison for them, is to be sorrounded by shark-infested waters.

    And there ain't no sharks in the Heartland, Mister, now is there?

  • Graham sharma on December 11, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Hi, Thanks for posting an important Article. I have enjoyed reading it.
    Graham Sharma

    [You're welcome to comment. You are not welcome to drop links to sheister, for-profit, rips-off-veterans so-called "schools," so if that's why you're here, move on. If you do that again, your IP will be blocked. --Moderator]

  • Wayne on December 11, 2011 12:18 PM:

    Sometimes it is difficult to have faith in the justice system as good as it is.

    When you see someone caught with a couple of joints in their pocket go to prison for five years and yet, a doctor that killed a famous celebrity is sentenced to four years and will probably serve less than two.

    I know that's how the laws are written, but where is the justice in that?

  • TCinLA on December 11, 2011 12:37 PM:

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

    As the well-known quote from the 19th Century French politician goes, "There go my followers, and I must run after them, for I am their leader."

    Or as Mark Twain put it at around the same time: "Consider an idiot. Then consider a Congressman. Ah, but I repeat myself."

    Or as a good friend on the other end of the spectrum said yesterday, speaking on exactly the topic of politicians trying to seem "tough": "our idiots at work."

    And of course the idiot Blue Dogs, always worried about looking "un-tough" in an election, do all this stuff which actually makes them look like they have the wet noodle spines they do.

  • Kathryn on December 11, 2011 1:41 PM:

    Simply put, the Republican Party "leaders", both elected and unelected mouth pieces, are wrong so consistently it's laughable, or would be, if it weren't for the 30% ( at a minimum) who fall for it.

  • Dredd on December 11, 2011 4:49 PM:

    With the mental block as to the military, there is no limit to this madness.

  • JohnN on December 11, 2011 5:12 PM:

    But no worries, I'm sure Obama's failure to make this argument is just proof of his ninth-level Jedi master political skills.

  • chi res on December 11, 2011 5:22 PM:

    But...but...but I thought the republicans wanted everything to be run by the PRIVATE SECTOR (which is the case at most of our domestic prisons) and NOT THE PUBLIC SECTOR (military)?!?

  • chi res on December 11, 2011 5:27 PM:

    I'm sure Obama's failure to make this argument is just proof of his ninth-level Jedi master political skills.

    Oh right, because God knows that this current crop of republicans will certainly do the RIGHT THING if they're convinced by a STRONG ARGUMENT of FACTS and REASON!

  • sherifffruitfly on December 11, 2011 6:16 PM:

    republicans have a LOT of reason to keep this up. They know that "progressives" will join them in BLAMING OBAMA, no matter how badly republicans behave. Hence there is no motivation for republicans to behave any better.

  • exlibra on December 11, 2011 6:36 PM:

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

    I'm not so sure that that's the motivation; I certainly doubt it's the *only* one. Personally, I'd follow the money trail. There's much more money to be made, by more people (think of all the military subcontractors!) in places like Gitmo, than in civilian places, if only because Gitmo is out of bounds for any outside control (military secrets, doncha know; journalists need not apply). Blame it on my early Marxist training, but, whenever I hear someone spout such obvious nonsense (like the defense of secret/military trials, on a "base" which has just recently been retrofitted at a cost of millions), I start thinking of "who benefits?" (or, as the lawyers say:"cui bono?")

  • Cassandra123 on December 11, 2011 10:38 PM:

    Republicans want to use private prisons because they can scam the system for a lot of money. Why do you think it costs $800,000 to house terrorism prisoners outside this country? The American government actually controls taxpayer costs within the federal prisons. If prisoners are sent to private-for profit prisons, the unit costs increase many times. When republicans are in control of government, they "steal" (under some legal definition) all of the money out of the system. In case we have forgotten, the reason we are in the awful financial straits we have to contend with is due to republican govenment--George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

  • JohnN on December 12, 2011 12:55 AM:

    Oh right, because God knows that this current crop of republicans will certainly do the RIGHT THING if they're convinced by a STRONG ARGUMENT of FACTS and REASON!

    No, precious, because a strong argument, fashioned with some rhetorical skill will convince the people who are not in the Tea Party. You know, the public who has views shaped by random media, but not deep convictions?

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