It pains us to say this, but justice in America these days is more crippled than blind, and the entire system seems to be lurching toward collapse.

It isn't just the inequity of the system that allows those with legal counsel and resources to defer or avoid prison. It is how we treat those who are incarcerated.

Exhibit 1 is California's prison system. Despite the fact that the state has been building prisons at a manic rate since 1970, the entire system is so overcrowded and inhumane that a federal court has ordered it to reduce the number of its prisoners by one-third.

Violent and gang-riddled, with the system at twice its maximum capacity, the California system is not so much a house of correction as it is a breeding ground of pestilence. It contains 156,000 inmates (with another 20,000 farmed out to other states). Federal judges have tentatively ordered the California system to be capped at 101,000, which means that 55,000 prisoners must be released.

But this is not just a California problem. The United States now has more than 2.2 million people in prison on any given day, and 13.5 million pass through the prison system in the course of a year. This costs us $60 billion annually. We now have a greater percentage of citizens incarcerated than any other Western country, having surpassed Russia in the last few years. And no, these crowded conditions are not the result of illegal aliens. The reasons range from the huge number of drug users who are imprisoned, tougher sentencing laws and tougher parole laws, as well as the shameful "three strikes" laws that can end up sentencing minor criminals to a lifetime of jail for what are often relatively petty third offenses.

The situation has become so deplorable that in California even the prison guards have sided with the prisoners in decrying conditions.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always called for the humane treatment of prisoners and has emphasized the fact that imprisonment should lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner once his just sentence has been served. Catholics, in fact, call the visiting of the imprisoned a corporal work of mercy (see Mt 25:36), though it is a mercy seldom practiced in a society that prefers to ignore those it has disposed of.

While prisons are absolutely needed to restrain the worst among us, the system is too often simply cruel and inhuman. Prisoners are warehoused hundreds of miles from their families. There is little effort to rehabilitate the nonviolent and the misguided. Infectious diseases, including AIDS, are poorly contained, and sexual violence only worsens the spread of many diseases. Every year 1.5 million prisoners are released to the community carrying a contagious disease, thus endangering society. An estimated 350,000 prisoners suffer from "serious mental illness."

Our prison system nationally is one more example of a corrosive lack of respect for human dignity that harms the prisoner as well as the unborn, the handicapped and the elderly. Such disregard on the part of society breeds further violence. The Church understands that man's inhumanity to man not only consists of crime itself, but also society's treatment of the wrongdoer. Ultimately, the treatment of prisoners is a respect-life issue.

Sentencing guidelines that truly match the crime, adequate efforts at preparing the prisoner to re-enter society, a decent prison health care system and an effort to keep prisoners and their families engaged will do more for society's welfare than more judges, more cells and more guards.