Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the Maryland General Assembly’s leadership appear to be moving toward the creation of a statewide pretrial services unit that would assume more responsibility for deciding who should be immediately released from custody while awaiting trial.

The aim is to overhaul Maryland’s current pretrial confinement practices following court decisions that suggest the state keeps too many people incarcerated for too long while awaiting trial and provides insufficient legal safeguards for people when bail is set.

“The goal is to incarcerate the people who really need to be incarcerated,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said, as the Senate agreed to suspend procedural rules to introduce the last-minute bill, SB973, directly into the Judicial Proceedings Committee and begin crafting a solution.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said a new pretrial services unit — modeled after existing programs in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County – would use professionals in law enforcement and corrections to screen those arrested with the idea of freeing most of them before they needed to appear before a judicial officer.

Frosh, who is a candidate for Maryland attorney general, said the District, Montgomery and other jurisdictions allow most nonviolent and minor offenders to go free pending trial, usually on recognizance bonds. Those jurisdictions have shown that the system is less costly than locking people up but still has a good record of ensuring their appearance in court later, he said.

“What we’re striving for is to make it more efficient, less expensive, fairer to people who are arrested, and ultimately protect public safety while still diverting most folks from having to spend time in jail,” Frosh said. He stressed that only the outlines of a possible solution have emerged, but said state leaders appear to be moving in the direction of a pretrial services unit.

“This is all very preliminary,” Frosh said. “We put the bill in to sort out all these levels of detail.”

O’Malley’s press secretary Nina Smith said only, “We are looking at various ways to improve the system.”

Frosh also said no one has estimated the cost of such a system yet. But he said the proposal would likely cost less than continuing Maryland’s current two-tier system of setting bail with court commissioners and judges, and ensuring that all defendants, including the poor, have access to an attorney.

Under the current system, defendants have a right to appear before a judicial officer — usually a court commissioner — within 24 hours of their arrest. About half are released without having to post a bond. But some 80,000 defendants a year appear before both a District Court commissioner, who are on call at all times, and then a District Court judge for similar proceedings to review the criminal charges and possibly obtain bail.

Officials in all three branches of government have hastened to find a way to streamline the system following recent court decisions challenging Maryland’s process of setting bail.

Those decisions, in DeWolfe v. Richmond, have held that defendants are entitled to an attorney at the earliest proceedings, and that those who are too poor to afford a private attorney are entitled to a public defender — a right that the Office of the Public Defender estimates could cost taxpayers about $30 million a year.

Others have suggested that the cost of additional staff, space and perhaps having a prosecutor on hand for the bail hearings could raise the costs significantly higher.