Seattle gets specialized federal drug court

SEATTLE — The federal court in Seattle is one of just a few around the country experimenting with something state courts have been doing for two decades — specialized drug programs.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who helped start King County’s drug court program when he was a Superior Court judge in the early 1990s, says the new federal pilot project will help some low-level defendants whose crimes were motivated by addiction get treatment and avoid a felony conviction while saving the government incarceration costs.

“People have this idea that federal court only handles the cartel guys,” Martinez said. “We’re not going to have that guy in this program.”

Under the program, defendants will enter a conditional guilty plea, and if they comply with a one- to two-year treatment program, their conviction will be vacated.

Martinez worked with the U.S. attorney’s office, federal public defender’s office and U.S. Probation in coming up with criteria for defendants to be eligible for the program, including that they not have violent or sexual offenses in their past; have no more than two prior felonies on their record; and that any mental health issues be manageable.

Defendants must appear before Martinez at least once a month and come clean about their criminal conduct, with immunity granted for any admissions they make,

The first three defendants selected to participate are scheduled to enter their pleas on Friday. They include a Tacoma man accused in a conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, and a woman accused of committing bank fraud and identity theft to maintain her meth habit. The third case remains under seal.

Martinez says the program is starting small, and he only expects about 10 participants in the first year. Federal courts in Los Angeles, Illinois and South Carolina have similar programs.

Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the federal Administrative Office of the Courts, said federal courts are taking new approaches to drug-motivated crimes as judges such as Martinez, who helped develop the drug-court model in the state system long ago, are elevated to the federal bench.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan was a defense lawyer in the early 1990s and also helped set up the King County drug court, the 12th in the nation.

More than 1,770 people have graduated from King County’s drug court since it was launched in 1994.

One obstacle to adopting such programs federally was the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorneys Manual, which until March 2011 banned prosecutors from agreeing to pretrial diversion for defendants with addiction problems.

In a speech in New York this year, Deputy Attorney General James Cole noted that dozens of people — 90 percent of participating defendants — had graduated from the federal program in Illinois, saving nearly $5 million in incarceration costs.

“This is a novel approach, but I think it’s long overdue,” Durkan said. “If you can intervene and have the type of real treatment the person needs, you can make sure you protect society and rehabilitate the individual.”

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