On Feb. 5, the Portland Press Herald reported on the Maine Department of Corrections’ proposal to reorganize the management of county jails, a plan that involves closing several jails. The main focus of this plan appears to be reducing costs to the taxpayers. It’s not clear how the proposal will bring about cost savings or tackle the underlying problem – too many people in jail.

The Press Herald has previously reported that an astonishing 60 percent or more of inmates in county jails are there awaiting trial. Apparently, many are there because they have unpaid court fines or minor probation violations. Jailing people because they have not paid fines conjures images of the debtors’ prisons described by Charles Dickens – and is jailing someone really the best way to encourage good behavior after incarceration?

The example of New Jersey may be instructive. On Jan. 1, 2017, New Jersey instituted a major reform of the bail system, eliminating cash bail and using risk assessment tools to determine who should be held in jail until trial or released on their own recognizance or with an ankle bracelet. Over the past year, state court data indicate, the jailed population has decreased by 20 percent. At the same time, New Jersey State Police statistics show that there’s been no significant change in the number of people appearing for trial or involved in serious crime.

Considering why so many people are spending time in jail, it seems they are more in need of social workers or drug counselors than judges. For minor offenses, a renewed emphasis on correction rather than punishment might go a long way to reducing the jail population and opening up a better path for those who’ve strayed.

As for saving the jobs associated with county jails, surely we can find a more constructive way to employ state and county employees than unnecessarily keeping people in jail.

Philippa Solomon