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Criminal code rewrite still has chance for passage, leaders say

Almost two months ago, state Sen. Jolie Justus was pretty sure “the crime bill is looking more like a 2014 project” than winning passage this year.

Then last Thursday, the House passed its version of the 1,000-page proposal to rewrite and reorganize Missouri’s criminal laws, by a 150-7 margin.

“I think we have a good chance of passing it. I think that there’s a lot of momentum,” Justus, D-Kansas City, said last week.

“I would prefer to pass it this year — as everybody knows, next year is an election year, and I think this bill is easier to pass in a non-election year.”

Lawmakers last rewrote the criminal code in the 1970s.

And the Missouri Bar’s Criminal Code Revision Subcommittee studied the issue for four years before recommending legislative action last year.

That committee included prosecutors and defense attorneys,

representatives of the judiciary and the Legislature.

Justus, one of four lawyers on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, sponsored the Senate version of the proposal.

The Senate committee a month ago completed its hearings on the proposal, but hasn’t recommended that the full Senate debate the plan.

Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, chairs the Judiciary Committee, and told reporters April 8: “If we reach consensus on it, I’m not opposed to moving on it before this (session) is up — but something of this magnitude I’m very hesitant to rush.”

However, after the House passed its version last week with little opposition, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, wants to see the issue get debated in the Senate.

“The criminal code revision is very much alive,” he told reporters.

He expected to refer the House bill to the Judiciary Committee, and thought it might get a hearing tonight — although it was not listed on the committee’s agenda Sunday afternoon.

“The biggest impact in this bill is the creation of the new felony class,” Justus said. “So, what we’re going to see is a shift in what sentencing is available for the different classes of felonies.”

The current criminal code has four felony classes:

• A, the most serious, including murder and rape, can carry a prison sentence from 10-30 years, or life.

• B, including second-degree murder, carries a possible prison sentence of five-15 years.

• C, with a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

• D, with a prison sentence of up to four years.

The proposed code would add a Class E felony as the least-serious level of felony crimes. Most of the current D-felony crimes would become E felonies.

Most of the current C felonies would become D felonies.

And the C felony classification would pick up crimes that lawmakers think should be treated more seriously than the current Class C crimes, but less seriously than the current B felonies.

“I don’t think this will, really, change who’s in prison (and) the amount of people in prison,” Justus said. “What I think this will do is make sure we have the right mix of people in prison. ...

“Those that need to be in supervised probation or parole, that (still) will be available to them, as well.”

Lawmakers over the years have created a number of new crimes, and punishments for them.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, noted in a news release that the continuing additions had created “a hodge-podge of duplicitous and inconsistent statutes over the decades.”

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