Philadelphia's beleaguered fugitive squad will get assistance from the U.S. Marshals Service, which plans to assign new agents to help hunt down people wanted on bench warrants for skipping court.
Court officials welcomed the help, which comes as budget woes have forced them to make deep cuts in the size of the local warrant unit.
"It's always gratifying to get more resources to apply to a problem," Court Administrator David C. Lawrence said Tuesday.
The federal assistance comes at the request of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), who wrote to the director of the Marshals Service in February and asked him to devote more resources to its Philadelphia office, and assign marshals to help bring in Philadelphia's massive count of 47,000 long-term court fugitives.
In a written reply to Specter, the director, John F. Clark, said the agency would expand its 48-member Philadelphia regional office by 10 marshals. He said they would "work aggressively to address the fugitive problem in Philadelphia."
As The Inquirer reported in a series of articles in December, Philadelphia has one of the nation's worst fugitive problems. The city is tied with Essex County, N.J., home of Newark, for the highest number of fugitives in the country, according to federal comparative studies.
Seven marshals are currently detailed to an interagency Violent Crimes Fugitives Task Force. This 35-member task force, led by the Marshals Service, made more than 1,500 arrests in the last fiscal year.
However, its focus has not generally been on people who have skipped out of local courts. Instead, it has gone after suspects wanted on federal charges or on arrest warrants by Philadelphia police.
With the addition of the new marshals, that focus will shift in part to include fugitives who are wanted on bench warrants for failing to show up for court.
Efforts to track Philadelphia fugitives have been anemic. The Philadelphia Police Department has no unit solely assigned to pursue absconders from court, and the court's own warrant unit has been drastically cut over the last year.
It now has 51 officers, down from 73 a year ago, assigned to go after the thousands of people wanted on bench warrants. They have a caseload of more than 900 per officer.
The unit made about 5,000 arrests last year, but the pool of fugitives keeps growing. And even with the addition of federal officers, the caseloads will remain daunting.
Court officials say strained finances have prevented them from adding more officers in recent years. At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue in January, David Preski, who oversees the squad, lamented staffing levels that he described as inadequate.
Reached by telephone Tuesday, Preski declined to comment, saying new "rules" precluded him from speaking to reporters. He referred comment to Lawrence.
Specter lauded the expanded staffing in the local marshals office.
"I think it's a significant accomplishment to put more people on the Philadelphia fugitive problem," said Specter, who in seeking reelection is opposed in this month's primary by U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
Acting U.S. Marshal John Patrignani said he was glad for the additional staff, which was part of a nationwide expansion of the Marshals Service.
He said his office would use the new marshals in part to "increase our efforts with state and local agencies here in Philadelphia to reduce the violent fugitive problem."
The new staffers will arrive after they graduate from the U.S. Marshals Academy in Georgia. The first will join the local force in July and most should be on staff by the end of the year, Patrignani said.
Along with tracking down fugitives, the marshals also provide security at federal courthouses in Philadelphia, Reading and Allentown; transport prisoners to federal court hearings; run the U.S. witness protection program; and seize assets for federal agencies. Patrignani said he had not yet decided precisely how to deploy the 10.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing Specter convened on Monday to discuss the Philadelphia courts, witnesses underscored the seriousness of the fugitive problem.
John S. Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University who has studied the Philadelphia court system, said fugitives who escape punishment persuade other defendants that they can flout the system.
"The message that one can just walk away produces a message of reverse deterrence," he said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D. Del.), who joined Specter at the hearing, said he was alarmed by the issue.
"The problem of people just walking in and out of the justice system like a revolving door, it's scary," he said. "We've got to deal with these things. We absolutely have to deal with them."
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.