Nixon won't veto criminal code

Will go into effect Jan. 1, 2017

Gov. Jay Nixon “is not going to veto” the massive bill revising and updating Missouri’s criminal code, state Sen. Jolie Justus told members of the Missouri Bar Friday.

In recent months, Nixon had said he thought the bill was too large, that there was too much potential for error in it when “there is simply no room for error.”

Justus told the a luncheon during the Bar’s annual Spring Meeting: “I am excited to say that we are going to work with the governor’s office and with advocacy groups across the state to make sure that any additional concerns are addressed.

“We’re going to work those through the Legislature, both this year and moving forward — and we’ll have something that I think we can all be incredibly proud of.”

The bill lawmakers sent Nixon almost two weeks ago is more than 600 pages long.

It “cleaned up and reorganized a patchwork of criminal laws” that has been growing over the past 35 years, Justus said, since the current criminal code became effective on Jan. 1, 1979.

“We have passed a lot of bills related to crime in the last 35 years,” she said. “Unfortunately, what we have not done is done it in a way that it is a usable, cohesive document.”

Justus’ keynote address came about an hour after she, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, House Judiciary Chairman Stanley Cox and Rep. Chris Kelly met with members of the governor’s staff.

Nixon has until Tuesday to veto the bill, sign it into law or allow it to become law without his signature.

Spokesman Scott Holste did not report which action the governor will take, but said in an email: “We continue to work with the sponsors of the Criminal Code bill, as well as groups that would be directly impacted by it, to address issues surrounding this legislation.”

Kelly, D-Columbia, told the News Tribune: “The governor has a list of technical fixes that we need to do.

“We will take those, examine those and put those into the House bill” which still is waiting the Senate’s action.

Kelly and Justus both said the Senate will be asked to remove the current language and replace it with the changes Nixon and his staff want. Then the House will have to approve the changes.

Cox, R-Sedalia, felt “very positive” about the news from Nixon’s office, and is confident there’s enough time next week — the last week in this year’s legislative session — to make the changes the governor’s office wants.

Dixon, R-Springfield, said: “I believe the governor and his staff went through the bill very thoroughly — and I appreciate that.”

Missouri Bar Vice President Erik Bergmanis, Camdenton, is a private-practice lawyer whose cases include criminal defense work.

Borrowing an illustration from Camden County Prosecutor Brian Keedy, Bergmanis noted the rewritten criminal code is “like the tools have been scattered all over the garage, and now someone has put them in a neat order, back in the tool box.”

Having an updated criminal code will be good for all Missourians, he said.

“This is going to make the work in the criminal area easier to understand and easier to do,” Bergmanis explained. “It’s going to make the prosecutor’s job easier in putting things together — which really simplifies the process for everyone, including the public.

“And when someone from the public wants to know the nature of the charges, it will be way easier for them to figure out what the charge is about and what the range of punishment is.”

In addition to the Criminal Code revision, Dixon noted, lawmakers still have five bills they could consider next week that would create a new, House-Senate joint committee on the code, “for ongoing revisions in the decades ahead — and the governor’s request is right in line with our vision.”

Jason Lamb, director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, which represents prosecuting attorneys around the state, was part of the Bar committee studying the need for criminal code revisions from the beginning eight years ago.

He’s pleased with Nixon’s plans to let the revised version become law. And he likes Dixon’s idea of an ongoing revision process.

“That’s a great idea,” Lamb told the News Tribune. “Obviously, 30 years ago when the code was first revised, the missing link was not having a process in place to maintain the structure of it and the harmony of it.

“Doing that this time ensures that all the hard work that all the parties have done for the last eight years does not fall by the wayside, going forward.”

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