For many people prisoners are out of sight and out of mind. But for those working in criminal justice or for the rights of those incarcerated, there are daily reminders of the toll overincarceration takes on low-level nonviolent offenders, prisoners' families, communities and taxpayers.

That's why we view U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement today of ways he intends to combat overincarceration in federal prisons with a great deal of optimism.

“Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Holder said. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

So true. Many of the changes Holder spoke of are reforms the ACLU has been pushing for years, including:

  • Developing guidelines to file fewer cases
  • Directing a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities and develop recommendations to address them
  • Directing every U.S. Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator
  • Directing every DOJ component to consider whether regulations have collateral consequences that impair reentry
  • Reducing mandatory minimum charging for low-level drug offenses
  • Expanding eligibility for compassionate release; and
  • Identifying and sharing best practices for diversion programs
  • Calling into question zero tolerance policies and other policies that lead to the school to prison pipeline
  • Challenging the legal community to make the promise of Gideon (right to counsel) more of a reality

Key amongst these reforms is the newfound push to keep nonviolent offenders from being subjected to mandatory minimum sentences that are inappropriate and unnecessary. Holder is instructing U.S. attorneys across the country to omit drug quantities from charging documents in these cases to avoid mandatory minimums. We applaud this and hope that these attorneys will follow Holder's guidance.

As things stand now, federal prisons in this country are already 40 percent over capacity. Low-level, nonviolent offenders do not belong in prison for decades and should be given shorter sentences to reduce this overcrowding.

As we've said many times before, mandatory minimums are one of the prime examples of the failure of the War on Drugs.

We'll be watching closely to see the impact Holder's announcement and whether it translates into fewer nonviolent offenders spending decades -- or even  life -- in federal prison.