With its budget woes, Philadelphia can ill afford the $5.9 million that city officials have agreed to pay as redress for the prison abuse of thousands of people subjected to humiliating strip searches after being jailed only for minor offenses.

But the settlement disclosed this week is a price that must be paid for years of heavy-handed booking policies that treated all prisoners as if they were hardened criminals.

The city's penalty - which could rise an additional $2 million in legal fees - also should stand as a warning around the region.

Due to the lack of uniform policies on strip searches, suburban towns and other counties still run the risk of abuses. Indeed, four South Jersey counties and Dauphin County, Pa., are on the hook for more than $16 million in settlements over searches, with lawsuits pending elsewhere.

It's fortunate that, as a result of the 2005 class-action lawsuit over the city searches, Philadelphia prison officials reformed their strip-search policies. Searches are down dramatically, and most people arrested for minor offenses are scanned with devices for contraband and drugs, rather than subjected to a visual inspection while naked.

The city's six prisons had taken security to absurd lengths by strip-searching even people held overnight while trying to make bail. One inmate who sued was a longtime teacher jailed on a drunken-driving charge, who told of being terrified during the strip search, and later wept when locked in a prison cell.

An Inquirer investigation of prisoner-search policies in 2007 exposed their widespread use in suburban towns, as well. But the lack of a national standard on strip searches has hampered comprehensive reform, with some prison authorities continuing the indiscriminate practice on security grounds.

Even with several federal courts having ruled unconstitutional the blanket use of strip searches, the outlook for reform has been clouded by a recent ruling upholding such searches.

Police and prison officials should strip search only where they have reasonable suspicion that inmates are carrying contraband such as drugs. It's clear that blanket strip policies aren't the way to go - and it shouldn't take more costly court settlements to bring about reform.

If nothing else, taxpayers who are paying for the settlements should demand prison policies that pass court muster by fairly balancing the need for security versus individual rights.