Philadelphia (CNN) - Attorney General Eric Holder visited a federal court program for former criminal offenders to highlight the Justice Department efforts to change mandatory minimum sentences and other rigid federal rules.
Holder sat in court Tuesday as a group of men who have been released from prison in the past few months gave reports on efforts to find jobs, places to live and reunite with their families.
Each stepped before Judge Felipe Restrepo congratulated a few on milestones – new or second job, marriage, reuniting with children – and encouraged others to work to put their criminal past behind them.
Holder has ordered changes in how prosecutors pursue charged against non-violent drug offenders, seeking alternatives to prison where possible. He also is behind a push for more use of rehabilitative programs that aim to keep prisoners from re-offending and going back to prison.
The Philadelphia court helps oversee a federally-funded program called Star, or Supervision To Aid Re-entry.
The court hearing was at turns inspiring and humorous, with some ex-prisoners telling of obstacles they're trying to overcome to keep jobs and their families.
One participant in the program told the judge he was exhausted from working two jobs, in shifts from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. and then from 7:30 a.m. to noon. He spoke of working "to be better."
Joseph Young, 34, served 5 1/2 years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, NJ, for aiding and abetting cocaine distribution.
He was a success story that Judge Restrepo said he was particularly proud of.
Young saw an emergency medical service van in traffic, took down the phone number and called to ask for a job.
Months later he is an EMT, wearing his uniform proudly in court.
He told Judge Restrepo he considered him "more than a friend, you're family to me," because the judge helped him reunite with his children.
He told other ex-offenders in court the he sold drugs on street corners, then urged them to try harder. "Don't think they just because we got records that we can't do anything. If they say no, ask why," he said.
Holder discarded his prepared remarks and told the court that he was inspired by men.
"We're not fundamentally different," Holder told the ex-offenders, recalling how he grew up with friends on Queens, NY, who got into trouble later in life. He reminded he men that "You have a responsibility to the next generation."