Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., left, visits with judges and pretrial service officers during a precourt meeting Thursday at the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Peoria, Ill. (Fred Zwicky/AP)

As the Justice Department seeks new ways to reduce the burgeoning U.S. prison population, its success is likely to depend on community programs such as the one in this small city in America’s heartland.

In the past 11 years, federal prosecutors here have authorized substance abuse treatment and other assistance for more than 100 low-level offenders as an alternative to prison sentences. Eighty-seven have successfully completed the program and, in the process, saved the federal government more than $6 million by sparing it the cost of incarceration.

“There is a lot more to life than drugs and alcohol,” said Kyle Wright, 38, who was chosen for the program, known as the Pretrial Alternatives to Detention Initiative, after being arrested for selling cocaine. “As it turns out, this arrest . . . was a blessing in disguise. This wonderful program helped save my life from the hell on earth I was living.”

Justice officials see the program in Peoria as a model for other communities — and central to the criminal justice reforms that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to implement.

In August, at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. He has also introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, and to improve reentry programs to curb repeat offenses.

The announcements have heralded some of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts from the department in years. For Holder — who has said that as a U.S. attorney and judge he saw neighborhoods destroyed by both illegal drugs and the tough-on-crime legislation that has disproportionately affected black men — the issue has been personal.

“Day after day, I watched lines of young people, most often young men of color, stream through my courtroom,” Holder told ex-offenders Thursday during a visit to a St. Louis courthouse, one of a string of stops he is making to promote his reform agenda. “I learned how drug abuse, crime and incarceration can trap people in a destructive cycle. A cycle that weakens communities, tears families apart and destroys individual lives.”

Federal, state and local authorities now spend nearly $83 billion each year on corrections, according to law enforcement officials. It costs the federal government alone $6.4 billion a year to maintain its prisons — 25 percent of the entire Justice Department’s annual budget.

The nation’s prison population, meanwhile, has grown by about 800 percent since 1980 — during which time the country’s population has increased by about a third.

Support vs. criticism

Many of the department’s criminal justice reforms have bipartisan support, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have led the way on prison reform. Congress also has shown a renewed interest in reducing the nation’s prison population, including the introduction of a bill this week that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which funds grants for programs that support probation, parole and reentry programs across the country.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor and one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement.

Efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who are skeptical that new policies will reduce crime.

“I am skeptical,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said at a a hearing last week. “Reducing prison sentences will bring prisoners out on the street sooner. The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced. Many so-called nonviolent drug offenders have violent records. Some of these released offenders will commit additional crimes.”

Holder has said his reform efforts will address “shameful” disparities in the criminal justice system that unfairly hit poor and minority communities. He has cited a recent report that indicates that black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.

In a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this month, the attorney general watched more than a dozen drug offenders in a “reentry” program report to a judge to discuss their personal and work situations.

Officials there said the program, which provides parenting classes, vocational training and job opportunities, has saved $1.5 million in annual incarceration costs because fewer ex-offenders are being sent back to prison. The national revocation rate for ex-offenders who are not in such programs is 47 percent; the rate among participants in the seven-year-old Philadelphia program is about 20 percent.

During his stops Thursday, Holder met with judges and pretrial service officers and watched as a district court judge encouraged ex-offenders to overcome their drug addictions and stay out of prison. He spoke emotionally to a group about how his nephew struggled to overcome drug addiction.

‘I see myself’

Inside a federal courthouse in St. Louis, he watched a ceremony in which ex-offenders graduated from an intensive recovery program called EARN (Expanding Addicts’ Recovery Network).

“I look at you all and I see myself,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in New York City where people like you would have been my friends. We would have gone to school together. We would have tried to learn about girls together. We would have played basketball together. So I can’t help but feel mindful of the fact that, although I’m here in my capacity as attorney general of the United States, a few of the people I grew up with, good people like you, ended up taking different paths.”

“Some of them didn’t catch the same breaks,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said. “Some had to deal with drug issues. . . . I know that everyone makes mistakes — everyone. Including me. And that’s why I wanted to be here today to tell you in person how proud I am that each of you has decided not to let your mistakes define you and not to make excuses, but to make the most of the opportunities that you’ve been given.”

Kenneth Johnson, 36, one of the ex-offenders who graduated Thursday, said he was moved by Holder’s remarks. A former heroin addict, Johnson spent three years in prison for possession of cocaine and a gun before he was able to get treatment through the St. Louis program.

“For the attorney general to understand where we came from, what we’ve been through and where we are trying to go really touched my heart,” Johnson said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.