Overcrowded prisons packed with low-level drug offenders confined there because of inflexible mandatory minimum sentencing. This is an increasingly serious problem or set of problems at the state and federal levels. Massachusetts has made progress in recent years, and early last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced major reform measures that have the potential to dramatically improve the nation’s criminal justice system.

The federal prison system has 219,000 inmates, 40 percent above its capacity, and just under 50 percent are there for drug-related crimes. As Mr. Holder observed in a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco, too many of those jailed for drug-related crimes are there because mandatory minimum sentences tied the hands of judges, who if given the option would have sentenced them to community service instead, along with treatment for drug addiction. Specialists in the field have long argued that, as the attorney general said, too many people (a disproportionate percentage of them black or Hispanic) go to prison for too long and "for no truly good law enforcement reason." Washington has been slow to react, probably out of fear of being labeled soft on crime. Finally, Washington is beginning to catch up.

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Holder announced that he had instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug defendants with crimes that trigger mandatory minimum sentences. The next step is enacting legislation giving judges greater discretion in sentencing, and while that would seem to be an impossible task for a bitterly partisan Washington D.C., both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate responded positively to the attorney general’s initiative. Predictably, however, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, saw the proposal as an Obama administration power-grab.

The Massachusetts prison population has grown 15 percent since 2004 for many of the reasons the federal prison population has grown. Michael O’Keefe, the president of the state’s district attorneys association, which supports mandatory sentences, told The Boston Globe that first-time, nonviolent drug offenders are rarely sent to state prison, but what went unsaid is that they end up in county prisons, which only shifts the burden of overcrowding elsewhere. Massachusetts took an important step in reducing the prison population last year when the Legislature passed and Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a reduction in mandatory sentences for some nonviolent crimes.

The action in Boston and last week’s initiatives by the Obama administration reflect changing attitudes toward drugs like marijuana which are made evident in national polls and in the votes on marijuana referendums in recent years by Massachusetts residents. It is needlessly punitive and expensive to pack prisons with marijuana users, and if not for minimum mandatory sentences created out of the misguided belief that more and longer jail sentences were the answer to every crime, this would no longer be the case.

Drug rehabilitation and community service are far less expensive than housing prisoners, and for nonviolent offenders those options give them a chance to become productive members of society rather than disappear into a state or federal penitentiary with violent criminals who actually belong there. Massachusetts has made this realization, and the White House, and we hope Congress, are now making it as well.