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Criminal code must wait until next year

‘Monumental task’ will get high priority in 2014

Supporters of an effort to rewrite and reorganize Missouri’s criminal code said Wednesday the clock — and the size of the bill — kept them from passing the bill this year.

“The criminal code (bill) made a lot of progress this year in the Legislature,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said at a mid-day news conference. “It goes without saying that the revision of more than 700 sections of Missouri law is a monumental task.”

But it’s “a very important” task, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd explained, “to modernize a criminal code that has not seen a substantial rewrite for several decades. And that’s just too long.”

Zahnd is this year’s Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys president.

The criminal code defines what acts are considered crimes in the state, whether they are serious enough to be felonies, or less-serious misdemeanors — and the kinds of punishment that Missourians want judges to impose when someone is convicted of those crimes.

The proposed rewrite took existing crimes that had been written into different sections of the current lawbooks over the years, and shifted them so that similar crimes can be found together.

In some cases, that also meant revising the possible punishments for those crimes.

“This is not a simple bill. It’s a lengthy bill and is something that has been needed for quite some time,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, who sponsored the Senate version of the proposal.

“Our Senate leadership ... has said that this is a priority, and that we’re going to get this done — and that we’re going to try to get it done very early next year.”

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told reporters Monday there wasn’t time this week “to go through what could be an 1,100 page bill. ... We want everyone to be fully aware of every facet of that bill, prior to taking action, so it’s not something to be rushed through.”

Missouri’s current criminal code went into effect in 1979.

Several years ago, the Missouri Bar created a committee of prosecutors and defense lawyers to study the current code and the need to change it.

“Getting this through in one, or even two, years would have been great,” Jason Lamb, director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services and co-chair of the Bar’s Criminal Code study, told reporters. “But it took us four years — as a group of seasoned practitioners — to come to a consensus.

“And that’s the really important thing to remember about this package — it’s a consensus piece of work ... that makes practical sense for the 21st century criminal justice system in the state of Missouri.”

Dixon wants Dempsey to okay the Judiciary Committee’s meeting over the summer and fall, allowing lawmakers to meet with people around the state and explain what the bill is trying to accomplish — and to get their input on possible changes.

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, carried the plan in the House.

“It’s always better to pass a bill than to not pass a bill,” he said. “But despite that, I certainly remain optimistic this makes some significant, and beneficial, changes in the law.”

Ultimately, supporters said, passing a reorganized criminal code should help local governments and the courts save money.

“A clear, concise and understandable criminal code contributes to a strong, effective criminal justice system that protects liberty and promotes a free society,” Dixon said.

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