By Jason M. Breslow for PBS/Frontline. As a judge in Washington, D.C. in the ’80s and ’90s, Eric Holder says it didn’t take much to tell that the nation’s criminal justice system – especially when it came to low-level drug offenses – was “fundamentally unfair.”

“I had these mandatory minimum sentences that I had to impose on people who had drug problems who were selling, you know, relatively small amount of drugs in a nonviolent way to support a drug habit that they had, and who had to to go to jail for a five-year mandatory minimum, or a 10-year mandatory,” Holder remembers. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it.”

By the time he became attorney general in 2009, Holder knew reform was long overdue. In a 2013 speech before the American Bar Association, he announced a new initiative called Smart on Crime. Under the policy, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would be spared from stiff mandatory minimum sentences. “In the context of the 40-year federal War on Drugs,” the speech, said Rolling Stone magazine, “was nothing less than radical.”

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