A record number of big drug dealers are fugitives from federal justice almost all of whom were able to post bail ranging as high as $1 million in order to avoid prison. There are about 2,900 of them and they outnumber federal narcotics agents three to two.

As a result, one of Attorney General William French Smith's top priorities is to ask Congress to amend the Bail Reform Act of 1966 to deal with what he calls the "growing problem of fleeing felons."

One possible change would be to encourage judges to hold bail hearings into the sources of the money being posted for bail. If it is believed to come from criminal sources, the judge could deny it as legitimate bail. Another possible amendment would allow judges to deny bail to anybody who might be suspected of committing crimes while out on bail, which is often the case with drug traffickers.

"Most of these people are fugitives because judges either reduced the size of their bail or set their bail unrealistically," Smith sain in an interview."This is a very critical problem."

Twelve of the fugitive drug dealers posted bail of at least $1 million apiece, three doing so in the last six months. One in five of the 2,900 was able to post bail of a least $100,000 before jumping bail and becoming fugitives.

"Some of these people net $250,000 to $500,000 a month from their drug business," Smith said. "Paying bail of $100,000 is like getting rid of pocket money to these people."

Smith said he was particularly angered by the case earlier this month of Jose Antonio Fernandez, a Spaniard arrested in Florida by undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration during the DEA's largest durg bust in years. Fernandez was charged with 13 counts of drug smuggling, conspiracy and intent to distribute marijuana in the United States.

DEA agents testified that Fernandez was the leader of a drug smuggling ring that had delivered hundreds of tons of marijuana into the United States by ship from South America.

A federal magistrate in New Orleans set bond for Fernandez at $21 million after DEA agents testified that he was worth between $30 million and $40 million. Another federal magistrate in New Orleans reduced Fernandez' bail to $10 million, and a third federal official, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Schwartz in New Orleans, knocked it down to $500,000, which Fernandez quickly paid.

When Fernandez was due to be arraigned on May 4, he wasn't in court. He forfeited bail, was declared a fugitive from justice and is believed to be out of the country.

"Putting people like Fernandez behind bars took a major effort by undercover DEA agents, who displayed enormous courage on the job," Smith said. "All that work was undone in one stroke of a judge's pen."

Of the 2,900 fugitives, the DEA says that 96 percent had prior criminal records, which should have meant their bail would be higher than average. The DEA estimates that roughly half are once again involved in smuggling drugs and selling them in the United States.