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Lawmakers rewrite Missouri's criminal code

Lawmakers rewrite Missouri's criminal code

April 24th, 2014 in News

For the first time in nearly four decades, Missouri lawmakers have passed a comprehensive rewrite of the state's criminal code.

The final bill should be delivered to Gov. Jay Nixon early next week, and he then will have 15 days to sign or veto it.

"In the limited time we have been given, we will review the bill as thoroughly as possible and take the appropriate action to protect public safety and hold criminals accountable," Nixon said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

If he signs it, or if lawmakers override a veto, the new criminal code won't go into effect until Jan. 1, 2017.

Nixon has, for several weeks, pointed to possible problems created if the new law has mistakes, and he has questioned the bill's size.

The final version is 608 pages long, down from an "introduced" size of 739 pages, said Eric Jennings, legislative assistant for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield.

Because of formatting differences, some early versions of the bill were more than 1,000 pages.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City and the bill's Senate sponsor, reminded colleagues Thursday morning the reason the bill is so large "is because we are reorganizing the entire code - which is something that for over 30 years we have put together on a piecemeal basis."

The House passed the bill Thursday morning with a 140-15 margin. The Senate's 28-2 vote came about an hour later.

Justus reminded the Senate the final bill was the culmination of eight years work, with "five years of prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and public defenders putting together a package" as a special Missouri Bar subcommittee, followed by "three years of legislative vetting."

With a few exceptions, the bill takes Missouri's existing laws defining criminal actions and reorganizes them in a way that, supporters have said, will make them easier for prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges to use.

The final bill's biggest change from existing law is the addition of a fifth category of felony crimes.

The Senate had dropped that change late last month, in an effort to make the bill smaller after Nixon said it was too large. But the House kept it and the senators Thursday accepted the House version.

Under current law, the most serious crimes are Class A felonies, and conviction could result in a prison sentence of 10-30 years, or "life," with a life sentence generally calculated as 30 years, under Missouri law.

The second category is Class B felonies, with a possible prison sentence from five to 15 years.

Class C felonies in current law carry a possible prison sentence of no more than seven years, and the Bar committee first suggested a sentencing gap between Class B and Class C crimes could be filled with the additional felony category.

The new category will be called Class C, with a possible sentence of three to 10 years, and the current Class C becomes Class D felonies, while the current Class D is renamed Class E, with a possible prison term of no more than four years.

Throughout the new code, some crimes were renamed, renumbered or consolidated into other existing crimes, and others were reclassified.

The reclassification included stronger prison sentences for people convicted of sexually abusing a family member, and the addition of "incest" as an aggravating factor in all sex crimes.

Justus said the major differences between Senate and House versions involved drug crimes.

The House rejected the Senate's no-jail-time for first-time marijuana possession of 35 grams, or less - but agreed to add a new crime in the new Class D misdemeanor category, of first-time marijuana possession of 10 grams, or less.

"This is still a crime," Justus said. "You will be facing a penalty of a fine - there will be no jail time on the table."

Prosecutors now aren't trying to get sentences for those first-time offenders with small amounts of the drug, Justus said, and no jail time means the state doesn't have to pay for public defenders in those cases.

The Senate's two "no" votes came from Republican attorneys who are Judiciary Committee members - and also had voted against it earlier.

Both Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, commended Justus, Dixon and the other lawmakers for their hard work on the bill.

But, Schmitt said, although the lawmakers working on the bill's various versions "came a long way in addressing a lot of things," he still wasn't able to support the final product.

"There are some reductions in penalties that, at the end of the day, I just wasn't comfortable supporting," Schmitt explained.

And Schaefer told reporters: "Having personally prosecuted criminal cases, my only concern is that by doing the project of the entire criminal code at one time, I simply believe it was too much to do and it's inevitable that something may have been missed."

That's been part of Nixon's concerns.

"As we communicated to the bill's sponsors, we remain concerned about their decision to pass a measure that so extensively rewrites the criminal code," Nixon said in his Thursday afternoon statement, "and to do so in a manner that limits the time available for the executive branch to review it.

"This is an area where there is simply no room for error."

Before the final Senate vote, Justus said: "We are very comfortable with this bill.

"We have people touting this as one of toughest-on-crime bills we've ever passed," Justus said.

"We also have people touting this as one of the smartest-on-crime bills that we've ever passed."