For decades, federal prosecutors pushed for long, mandatory prison sentences for defendants convicted of drug crimes, regardless of whether the offenders were big-time narcotics kingpins or low-level dealers peddling loose joints on the street. The result was an explosion in the nation's prison population that has left authorities scrambling to build new prisons fast enough to keep up. With some 2 million people behind bars, the U.S. incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other nation on earth. Yet the country remains as far as ever from being able to claim victory in the vaunted "war on drugs."

Since taking office six years ago, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has made it his mission to change federal policy toward drug offenders in a way that balances the seriousness of their crimes against the enormous costs society pays to maintain a criminal justice system based on mass incarceration. Last week, he announced impressive progress in that regard. The number of cases in which prosecutors pursued mandatory minimum sentences fell by nearly a quarter in 2014, and all federal drug prosecutions dropped more than 6 percent. Yet the average sentence for those convicted actually increased, which Mr. Holder attributed to the fact that "we prosecuted cases more smartly last year, doing fewer cases overall, but doing more serious crimes."

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In departing from the zero-tolerance approach to concentrate on larger-scale drug conspiracies and violent offenders, Mr. Holder hopes not only to relieve the crisis of overcrowding in the nation's prisons but to reduce the impact of a criminal conviction on the lives of people sentenced for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. He's previously pushed to change laws that punish possession of crack cocaine far more harshly than possession of the drug in powder form, a policy that disproportionately affects African-American communities. The Justice Department's current focus on going after major drug kingpins and violent gangs reflects a similar realignment of federal priorities.

But Mr. Holder's successes aren't enough. While we have faith that Loretta Lynch would follow Mr. Holder's lead if confirmed his successor, all bets are off when a new administration takes office in 2017. And even now, there's no assurance that all federal prosecutors will implement the policy changes Mr. Holder has set in motion. The head of the federal public defender's office in Maryland, James Wyda, says there's been little change in the tactics of federal prosecutors here despite Mr. Holder's efforts and that "there seems to be a great deal of reluctance on the part of the U.S. attorney's office to give up the control over sentencing that mandatory minimums give them."

Moreover, most drug cases are brought by state prosecutors in state courts, which are not necessarily bound by federal sentencing policies. In 2013, only about 860 of the 49,000 drug arrests in Maryland were prosecuted by the federal government. The Justice Department can set an example for how such cases should be handled, but there's no guarantee local prosecutors and judges will follow its lead.

The real solution is for Congress to reform federal sentencing policies through legislation and for state legislatures to follow suit. That might seem like a long shot given the political gridlock in Washington, but criminal justice reform has emerged as a rare issue uniting interest groups on the right and the left. The New York Times reported last week on the new Coalition for Public Safety, an odd bedfellows conglomeration of the Koch brothers, the Center for American Progress, the ACLU, Americans for Tax Reform and others, dedicated to reducing prison populations. It's an issue that has the potential to unite liberals, libertarians and fiscal conservatives and has already led to several bi-partisan legislative efforts. If they eventually succeed and help the nation reverse a generation of damaging and ineffective policies, Mr. Holder's advocacy will have a lot to do with it.

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