Seattle gets specialized federal drug court

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 courts.

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

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.

Under the program, defendants will enter a conditional guilty plea, and if they comply with a treatment program at least a year long, they can have their conviction vacated.

The first three defendants are scheduled to enter their pleas on Friday. 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.