Doris Ferguson was 18 years old but already her life seemed to be just one long series of arrests for peddling drugs.

She found, in encounters with the city's courts, a system willing to bend over backward for her. Because she was young and addicted to heroin, she avoided a mandatory sentence at every turn, and a judge finally sent her hundreds of miles away to a quiet place where she is trying to start over.

A ninth-grade dropout, Ferguson started shooting heroin when she was 16 and had been arrested once for drug distribution as a juvenile. She had another charge of selling $30 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer pending in Superior Court when an informant tipped police that a young woman was peddling heroin at the corner of 14th and W streets NW.

Five officers drove to the scene and found Ferguson with 10 plastic packets of dope in her pocket. A week later, she was arrested a fourth time. She was ordered to report for treatment at one of the city's clinics but, she said, "it was crowded, so I just didn't go back."

She pleaded guilty to two felony counts and on June 5, 1984, walked into the courtroom of Judge Nicholas Nunzio, where the opposing attorneys were miles apart on what her sentence should be: probation, said her lawyer, G. Allen Dale; a mandatory minimum four-year term, argued prosecutor Joan Barton.

"I'm reluctant to give her all that time," Nunzio said. He released her on probation under the youth offender statute, which enables judges to grant more lenient treatment to offenders convicted before their 22nd birthday.

Nunzio warned Ferguson that "if indeed you violate your conditions of probation and I see you again, the mandatory sentence that could have been imposed for the one drug charge . . . . That's exactly what you're going to get the next time."

Ferguson said she looked for a drug program, but they were all booked. "I just stopped calling my lawyer," and went back to the streets, she said.

Fifteen months later she was back in front of Nunzio with five new charges, including shoplifting, cocaine distribution and failing to make her court dates. She seemed destined for prison this time, but Nunzio didn't make good on his threat.

Prosecutors, too, were still willing to make a deal. They agreed not to file papers informing the court about Ferguson's earlier conviction, which would have assured a mandatory sentence. She went before a second judge -- Henry Greene -- on the cocaine charge and argued that her lawbreaking was tied to her heroin habit.

Greene placed Ferguson on probation and Nunzio went along with Dale's plan to finally get her into a drug program. Ferguson's family bought her an airline ticket to New York, where she hopped a train that took her to the Delancey Street drug rehabilitation program in Brewster, N.Y.

"You're talking about an 18-year-old kid who's been an addict for years already," Dale said. "I think they [prosecutors] are as flexible as they can be because they realize if everybody is facing a mandatory minimum and you have no way out at all, why would anyone plead guilty?

"I certainly would not recommend to a client that they plead guilty. You may as well roll the dice and go to trial."

Now Ferguson is on a strict schedule of getting up at 6 each morning to help make breakfast for the other residents at Delancey Street, where she can expect to spend the next three years.

"I want to stay," she said. "It's better working for myself than working for somebody on the street."