Reaction in Philadelphia from lawyers and reform advocates was positive Tuesday to news that the U.S. Department of Justice plans to lessen sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and release thousands of federal inmates to ease overcrowding.

David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who has for decades taken the city to federal court over prison conditions, called the Justice Department's move "a long time coming."

The type of inmates affected likely have served 15 or 20 or 30 years already for nonviolent drug offenses and early releases would shave a few years off some sentences, Rudovsky said.

Sentencing reform increasingly has had bipartisan support, Rudovsky said, including from conservatives such as the Koch brothers and a presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

Others, however, could accuse President Obama of throwing open the prison gates and argue that the releases are dangerous, Rudovsky said. "Will some people try to make political hay? I'm sure."

Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said a similar move was needed in Pennsylvania, which has more than 50,000 inmates in state prisons.

Mass incarceration "has really come to a crisis and the policymakers recognize this," she said.

"Prison is not the only answer and it is a very expensive answer," she said.

Jim Kenney, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Philadelphia, who has called for reform of the criminal justice system, applauded the news.

"Today's action by the Justice Department is an important step in the right direction," Kenney said in a statement.

"If elected mayor, I will work to reform Philadelphia's prison system and improve opportunities for returning citizens, so that every Philadelphian is given a true second chance," Kenney said.

Earlier this year, the Nutter administration proposed taking steps that would lead to building a new prison to replace the aging and overcrowded House of Corrections.

That effort has stalled and Kenney has said he opposes building a new prison while the Philadelphia School District continues to face funding woes.

Meanwhile, Rudovsky has litigation pending against the city for overcrowding. That case is expected to go to trial next year.

bmoran@phillynews.com

215-854-5983@RobertMoran215