ANNAPOLIS, JAN. 22 -- Maryland's top judge told lawmakers today that the state's court system is collapsing under the weight of drug-related crimes and urged them to create a consolidated circuit court, fully funded by the state.

"More than any other court level, circuit courts are confronted with the terrible carnage wrought upon our people by illicit drugs," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy told the House of Delegates in his annual State of the Judiciary address.

The state's 24 circuit courts, now operated and funded by counties and the city of Baltimore, are "uneven, uncertain, a real mishmash," Murphy said.

Proposals that the state consolidate and assume responsibility for the courts are not new, but Murphy delivered his plea with greater urgency this year. He put no price tag on his proposal.

"We judges, like you, say 'why, why,' as we read of the drive-by shooting of innocent pedestrians," Murphy said. "And we look aghast upon the news account of the molotov-cocktail firebombing of a row house in the middle of the night where six children slept -- precipitated by a dispute over drugs."

Still, delegates said it is unlikely that the financially strapped state will take over the circuit courts in the near future.

"This year, I don't see how it can be -- we're already being pressed to take over the {Baltimore} city jail," House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole (D-Washington) said.

Schaefer recently proposed that the state take over the $40 million a year job of running the city jail, a bailout he linked to his proposal to end the $38 million in aid the state provides annually to the city police force.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent) made the same point as Poole did, but more sharply, complaining that the legislature is being sent conflicting signals on how to solve the criminal justice system's problems. "When the governor asks us to take over the city jail and the chief judge says we should take over the circuit courts, which comes first?" Mitchell said. "Which helps the problem quicker?"

Mitchell said he has not made up his mind on either proposal, but stressed that in a tight budget year, the state could not do both.

In his address, Murphy cited a recent report by the Baltimore City Bar Association that the backlog of felony defendants in the city's circuit court has increased from 1,400 to 2,300 in the last year, with 1,000 of those defendants incarcerated at the city jail, awaiting trial.

The report warns that because of the city's fiscal problems, its 1992 circuit court budget will be exhausted after 10 months, forcing the court to close during May and June, Murphy said. The report also predicts that the court may soon be forced to forgo civil trials because of the overwhelming criminal caseload.

Murphy also called for reducing the size of the jury for civil cases from 12 to six to save money.

Also, he urged lawmakers to create a commission to study the value and effectiveness of the state's capital punishment statute "in light of its extraordinarily high costs, the difficulties so readily apparent in its constitutional implementation and the countless hours committed by prosecutors, public defenders and the courts to the trial of these cases."