Committee takes no action on House’s rewrite of criminal code

It will be next week before Missouri senators may consider a massive bill rewriting and reorganizing the state’s criminal code.

The Senate’s Judiciary and Criminal and Civil Jurisprudence Committee spent about 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon taking testimony on the House-passed version of the bill, then adjourned without taking a vote on endorsing the measure for full Senate debate.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, told reporters. “It’s at the end of the session, and we’re trying to make sure that we move with proper deliberation and going through things.”

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, sponsors the Senate version of the bill, that the Judiciary Committee took testimony on for several weeks, but also never voted out for floor debate.

“Every day that it doesn’t come out of committee is a day closer to May 17 at 6 p.m.,” when the Legislature must adjourn for this year, Justus told the News Tribune. “But I think that we’re getting closer. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The bill would reorganize Missouri’s criminal code for the first time since 1979.

Missouri Bar President Patrick Starke, a Blue Springs attorney, told reporters after the hearing: “I think bringing the legislation into the 21st century is important. (The last rewrite) was done when I graduated from law school in 1979.

“So, the world has moved on since then, and a lots of different offenses have developed.”

For instance, three decades ago, the computer wasn’t a household item used by everybody.

Re-establishing the criminal code’s structure also “gives judges and prosecutors a great deal of flexibility, by adding this new felony level” between the current Class B and Class C felonies, Starke said, “bridging the gap between (current) B and C felonies.”

House Judiciary Chairman Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said the House-passed version generally is like the Senate’s bill, although Cox didn’t change some drugs-related sentences as the Missouri Bar had suggested.

Cox also urged the senators to amend the bill — which would require it to have another House vote — “since there appears to not be an effective date, it would go into effect in August.”

Cox added. “I’m not sure that’s the very best idea.

“It probably would be better that we put a date of Jan. 1, (2014), to give the people plenty of time to get it ready” for enforcement.

The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence recommended three wording changes to strengthen the bill.

And the group Missouri Kids First proposed two changes, including keeping the kidnapping of a child under 2 as a Class A felony — the strongest felony the state has.

The House-passed law allowed that crime to be a Class B felony — a lesser crime and lesser charge.

Starke and Justus both thought it was a “positive sign” that no one testified against the bill Tuesday.

“The problem is,” Justus said, “we have just (a few) legislative days (from Tuesday) to get a massive idea through this chamber, and then back to the House.

“And that’s a long time — even when it comes to just photocopying.”

Starke said it would be better to pass the bill in 2013 — because next year is an election year.

“The sooner we get this bill passed, on the governor’s desk and signed, and functioning,” Starke said, “the sooner we can start dealing with those suggested ‘tweaks’.”

But if necessary, Justus said, it could wait until next year.

“Especially as milquetoast as this bill now is,” she said. “There’s nothing controversial in it, anymore.”

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