|
|
The Daily Guide - Waynesville, MO
  • Mo. lawmakers pass criminal code overhaul

  • Missouri lawmakers on Thursday sent Gov. Jay Nixon the first comprehensive rewrite of the state's criminal laws in decades, but supporters still face the tough task of convincing a skeptical governor that the bill doesn't contain mistakes.
    • email print
  • Missouri lawmakers on Thursday sent Gov. Jay Nixon the first comprehensive rewrite of the state's criminal laws in decades, but supporters still face the tough task of convincing a skeptical governor that the bill doesn't contain mistakes.
    The House voted 140-15 to pass the measure, and the Senate followed with a 28-2 vote about an hour later. That vote tally would be enough to override a potential veto. Lawmakers moved quickly to pass the bill, SB 491, Thursday to ensure the governor will have to act before lawmakers adjourn in mid-May. That gives them the option to attempt a veto override during regular session.
    Nixon has expressed reservations that the first complete overhaul since 1979 would change too much at one time. In a written statement after the vote, the governor reiterated his concern and said he would "take the appropriate action to protect public safety and hold criminals accountable."
    Supporters contend the measure has been thoroughly vetted with almost 30 public hearings throughout the three years lawmakers have considered the bill.
    The overhaul is complex and lengthy because it would create new classes of felonies and misdemeanors, and reorganize many existing crimes to fit the new penalty structure. It also would make several technical changes throughout law, such as enacting gender neutral language.
    The bill's sponsors said the overhaul would put violent and persistent offenders behind bars while also keeping some first-time criminals out of prison.
    "Good, law-abiding citizens want to know that their government and the criminal justice system is doing things that keep the public safe and are doing it in a cost-effective manner," said bill sponsor Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.
    In a change from current law, jail time would be off the table for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana. Possessing up to 35 grams of the drug is currently punishable by up to a year in prison.
    Also under the bill, people who sexually abuse their family members would face harsher prison sentences than under current law. Incest would be added as an aggravating factor for all sex crimes, which would let people be charged at a higher crime classification with longer possible jail terms.
    Opponents don't dispute the need for Missouri to revamp its criminal laws but disagree with the process.
    Nixon said previously he would prefer lawmakers break the overhaul down into separate bills instead of one comprehensive package and added that there is "no room for error" when discussing the state's criminal laws. That sentiment was shared by one of the two senators who voted against the bill.
    "The impact on victims and victim's families if something doesn't go right is terrible," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
    If signed by Nixon or enacted through a veto override, the measure would take effect in 2017. Supporters said the delayed effective date gives the Legislature two regular sessions to fix any errors. The Missouri Supreme Court Committee on Criminal Procedure has also agreed to review the legislation before it takes effect.
    Page 2 of 2 - The focal point of the overhaul is the implementation of new felony and misdemeanor classes. It would create a new felony punishment range that carries a 3- to 10-year prison term for certain crimes, bridging the gap between existing classes that carry an authorized jail term between 5 and 15 years and one that stipulates a maximum four-year prison stint.
    Under the new misdemeanor class, jail time wouldn't be an option. Current misdemeanor offenses carry possible sentences of up to 15 days to one year. Fines would also be raised for all crime classifications.
    The criminal code overhaul was drafted by a Missouri Bar committee made up of prosecutors, public defenders, private defense attorneys, judges and lawmakers. Bar association president Jack Brady said the bill is a better use of state resources and could give judges more flexibility in sentencing.
    "This is going to punish people who we are afraid of, not those who we are just mad at," he said.
      • calendar