In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which raised the amounts of drugs that required a mandatory minimum sentence and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack.
A year later, the Sentencing Commission not only reduced sentencing guidelines to match the new law, it allowed inmates already convicted to seek a reduction in their sentences under those new guidelines -- a move that allowed Nodd to get out of prison nine years early.
More than 7,300 other federal inmates have had their sentences cut short under the new rules, which the commission estimates will shave about three years off the average 13-year sentence and save about $200 million in prison costs over five years.
"There's really been a shift in the political climate on these issues for a decade now or so, particularly for drug offenses," Maurer said. "There's a much broader recognition of the need for treatment rather than just relying on incarceration for drug offenses."
Moving away from mandatory minimums
Last week, in yet another step back from the policies of the 1980s, Holder ordered federal prosecutors to change how they bring new drug cases against nonviolent, low-level criminals.
"They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins," Holder said in a speech to the American Bar Association.
So, how will that happen? Under Holder's order, prosecutors are being instructed to avoid citing the quantity of drugs when charging a low-level suspect in the drug trade, thereby avoiding the mandatory minimum sentence.
Holder's decision would apply to future cases, not to those already serving time.
The move has had its critics. William Otis, a former federal prosecutor and Drug Enforcement Agency official, argued that the steep drop in crime seen in the last two decades is at least partly due to stiff prison terms.
"Over the past 40 years, we actually have a lot of information about what works in the criminal justice system and what does not," Otis told CNN. "What works is prison. What does not is what we were doing in the '60s and '70s, when sentencing was lenient and we believed in rehabilitation."
And Michael Mukasey, the former federal judge who held Holder's job in the second Bush administration, said he supports getting rid of mandatory minimums -- but said Congress has to do it.
"The way to do that is to pass a law, not to simply say you're going to disregard the law," Mukasey said.
There's now bipartisan interest in Congress in doing just that. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and libertarian-leaning freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, have co-sponsored a bill that would allow judges to waive the mandatory minimums "to prevent an unjust sentence."
Leahy has scheduled a Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill for September. It has the support of both the American Correctional Association, which is made up of prison officials, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocated for Nodd and other inmates like her.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums said the cost of prisons is forcing the Justice Department to spend less on investigation and prosecution.
"We are going to catch fewer violent criminals and terrorists because our budget is being spent on keeping nonviolent drug users behind bars," the organization said.
'It was wrong'
When she went to prison in 1990, Nodd was pregnant with her fifth child. She had to hand the baby girl off to her family after giving birth. When her mother died in 2006, she was allowed a brief furlough to attend the funeral.
She's now reunited with her four boys and the girl she delivered behind bars -- and keenly aware of what she lost.
"I made a mistake, and they paid for my mistake," she said. Her mother struggled to raise the children, but "they turned out to be good kids. They ain't bad. Thank God they're not out robbing people."
Nodd said she never sold crack, but admits she helped a crack supplier set up shop in Mobile.
"I admit to my wrong," she said. "A guy came to Mobile. I met him, and I showed him the area, how to sell drugs, and I picked up some money for him." Despite the allegations leveled against her by the government, "I did not sell drugs for him."
When the new player was busted in 1988, he cut a deal with prosecutors and testified against Nodd and others. They were accused of moving up to 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of crack -- a volume that boosted her sentence.
"They never had no phone conversation, no wiretapping or nothing," said Nodd, who had left Mobile and was living in Boston when the charges came down. "I got 30 years as a first-time offender."