The head of the U.S. Marshals Service in Philadelphia said his staff was eager to assist the city courts' overwhelmed fugitive squad by going after the tens of thousands of fugitives who have skipped court ahead of trial.

"As everyone is aware, there is a fugitive problem in Philadelphia," John F. Patrignani said in an interview. "It's one of the worst in the country."

He spoke in response to a letter from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) urging the marshals to broaden their mission. Patrignani, the acting U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said that with additional money, he could assign more officers to going after the fugitives sought on bench warrants issued by Philadelphia judges.

That has not been a priority for the marshals. Patrigani's office leads an inter-agency fugitive task force that makes hundreds of arrests a year, but it has focused on serving arrest warrants on people wanted by Philadelphia police, as well as on tracking down federal absconders.

In his letter to the marshals Wednesday, Specter drew upon reporting in an Inquirer series, published in December, that portrayed a Philadelphia criminal justice system in crisis.

"Federal help is needed now," wrote Specter, who called local resources "woefully insufficient."

The newspaper found a system plagued by the nation's lowest conviction rates, the dismissal of thousands of cases without any hearing on the merits, widespread and growing witness intimidation - and a massive number of fugitives.

The paper reported that nearly 47,000 fugitives from the Philadelphia courts are now on the loose. The city is tied with Newark for having the nation's highest fugitive felony rate, according to a U.S. Justice Department survey. Specter cited these figures in his letter.

He also reprised the newspaper's report that the Philadelphia courts had a fugitive squad of just 51 officers to go after fugitives - a caseload of 900 defendants per officer. The squad arrested more than 5,000 people last year, but the number of fugitives continues to grow.

The Philadelphia Police Department has no fugitive squad, but participates in the 35-member Violent Crimes Fugitives Task Force led by the local marshal's office.

This task force made more than 1,500 arrests in the last fiscal year. The unit is staffed primarily with city police, along with state troopers, state probation officials and marshals.

The Philadelphia court warrant unit withdrew its officers from the task force a few years ago. It did so as budget cuts drove the squad's staff down from 67 officers to the current 51.

David D. Wasson, Philadelphia's chief deputy court administrator, said the system would welcome federal help.

"If they want to detail people to us, that would be awesome," he said.

"We do want to get people into court," Wasson said. "To get the cases before a judge and have them adjudicated one way or another is a good thing. It gives confidence to the victims and to society as a whole."

With additional funding, Patrignani said, his office could devote more officers, overtime and equipment to pursuing court fugitives.

In his letter, Specter did not propose new federal money funding for Philadelphia. Rather, he asked John F. Clark, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, to reallocate money in his national budget to staff additional fugitive teams.

"Given that Philadelphia has the highest violent crime rate in the United States among the 10 largest cities and the highest felony fugitive rate in the nation, the need for additional funding for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania's district fugitive task force is critical," Specter wrote.

Such letters from senators are traditionally treated with deference by government agencies. Specter serves on both the Senate's Judiciary and Appropriations committees, and each has significant oversight over the Marshals Service. He is also a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Clark declined comment today.

"The U.S. Marshals Service received Sen. Specter's letter and is reviewing it," said Jeff Carter, a spokesman for the service. "We will provide an appropriate response directly to the senator."

Specter is seeking a sixth term in the Senate. In this spring's Democratic primary, he faces opposition from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County, who also held hearings on issues raised in The Inquirer series.

In response to the series, Specter convened two Senate subcommittee field hearings in Philadelphia, one on the fugitive problem and another on witness intimidation. As the newspaper reported, witness fear is endemic in Philadelphia and is a factor in virtually every violent-crime prosecution.

Criminal cases routinely collapse in city courts because frightened witnesses fail to appear or change their stories on the stand. Prosecutors say they do what they can to protect and relocate witnesses, but funding for such efforts has fallen in recent years.

Specter today joined his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee in voting for a bill to provide federal grants to help local prosecutors relocate witnesses. The measure, which would provide $30 million annually for five years, now moves to the full Senate. It previously passed the House by a vote of 412-11. Sestak was a co-sponsor.

Specter said the well-known federal witness protection program was a success. "We ought to be helping the states achieve the same objective," Specter said.

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.