House, Senate trade criminal code bills

Key members of each chamber will meet to hammer out differences

Missouri lawmakers moved two steps closer to rewriting the state’s criminal laws Thursday, when the House and Senate each passed a version of the bill and sent it to the other chamber.

The longer House version passed by a 130-24 vote margin, while the Senate’s shorter version won a 29-3 victory.

Both bills reorganize the existing criminal laws — a task that hasn’t been done since the late 1970s.

Both bills would make the new code go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017 — providing more than two years to train prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and law officers on the numerous changes the new code would make.

The current code is “antiquated,” state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said Thursday. “It was clumsy because it’s been amended so many times over the years.

“This makes substantial, positive steps in the administration of criminal justice.”

But the two bills must be combined into one version before anything can be changed.

“I met with Rep. (Stanley) Cox Wednesday morning,” Senate sponsor Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, told reporters. “I handed him all of my charts and tools that helped navigate through the Senate bill.

“I told him what I believed the differences are — and I asked him if he could come up with the issues in the Senate version that he didn’t like. And I would come up with the issues in the House version that I didn’t like.”

Cox, R-Sedalia, chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He, Justus, Kelly and

Senate Judiciary Chair Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, plan to meet next week to discuss differences between the two bills, so they can start to decide which changes must be kept in the final version and which can be dropped during the ongoing debate.

Justus said she also promised Cox that “we’d sit down along with the prosecutors and public defenders and try to hammer it out.”

That meeting will be a key to the bill’s ultimate success, she said.

Those two groups worked together for five years as a Missouri Bar subcommittee, studying the state’s current criminal laws and debating what changes needed to be made before proposing a bill for lawmakers to consider.

The original plan recommended by the Bar included adding a new, fifth level of criminal charges that the current law doesn’t have.

That fifth level still is part of the House bill, but was cut from the Senate plan after Gov. Jay Nixon complained the 1,100-page proposal was too long.

Cox noted the Senate version also “reduced the felony possession of drugs one degree, and my version does not have that.”

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, and Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, both voted no because the bill reduced some drug penalties. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, voted against it, agreeing with Nixon that “it was too much at one time.”

Still, all three said they appreciate the years of hard work that’s gone into the proposals.

Last month, Nixon said he preferred to have a package of smaller bills changing the criminal code, rather than one large one.

Cox and Kelly both said Thursday breaking it into smaller pieces is the wrong way to make the changes.

“The parts move through the bill and, if you break it up, you disconnect parts of the bill from each other,” Kelly said. “The chance of error doesn’t go down — it goes up.”

Cox added: “It is a cohesive document. To pass parts of it makes no sense at all.”

During a Thursday afternoon news conference, Nixon didn’t repeat his desire for a criminal code rewrite in smaller pieces.

“The longer they are, the harder they are to write,” he told reporters. “I like to sign good bills, and we’ll give it a thorough review.”

Still, the governor said, he won’t sign a bill unless the Legislature gets it right.

“This is an area of law that is extremely nuanced, incredibly specific,” Nixon said. “The burden of proof is the highest on the government, because you’re taking liberty from others.

“And it just needs to be done in a very precise fashion.”

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