Quick debate eyed on new criminal code

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon said Wednesday the 739-page bill revamping Missouri’s criminal code “will be out of the committee by the end of the month.”

He wants to give the full Senate a chance “to do a very thorough job of vetting this,” while still getting it through both houses and to Gov. Jay Nixon by the end of this session.

Dixon said he doesn’t plan on a lot of hearings, reminding the committee members they already have “had 13 hearings on this bill” over the last few years.

The bill mainly regroups the state’s current criminal laws into categories with laws added to the code over the years, so similar crimes are treated in the same manner.

“This … has not been easy,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, who sponsors this year’s version of the bill.

She noted the Missouri Bar began reviewing the existing criminal code about eight years ago, and worked on it “for 4-5 years” before asking the Legislature in 2012 to change the lawbooks.

The bar’s study was made by both prosecutors and defense lawyers, including the state’s public defenders.

“The document they came up with was a consensus document,” Justus reminded the Senate committee. “Both sides said they had a little bit of heartburn over, but both sides felt was necessary for the administration of justice in the state of Missouri.”

Supporters want the bill to be passed this year, so it can go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said Wednesday he’s concerned with the idea that everything will change at once.

“It needs to be updated — don’t get me wrong,” the former prosecutor said. “As a prosecutor, you know what the charges are and you know what the elements are and you know what facts fit.

“And what we’re going to do is take the whole universe and change it at one point.”

Justice noted many of the changes are caused by existing laws being moved from one section to another, and that one reason for waiting until 2016 to make the switch is to allow time for needed training.

Roy Richter, a judge on the appeals court in St. Louis, told the committee he was an associate circuit judge when the last rewrite was done 35 years ago.

“It was a nightmare, but we got through it,” he said. “I’m sure that will happen again.”

He encouraged lawmakers to leave as many of the laws as possible in the same chapters they are now.

Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight is president-elect of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which he said supports the changes because: “There was disharmony among some of the statutes.

“There was a need for consolidation of some of these statutes.”

Knight said one major benefit is the addition of a fifth “class” of felony crimes, with a possible sentence range of from 3-10 years.

“For example, right now, involuntary manslaughter in the first degree typically is a Class C felony. So is forgery,” he explained.

“The range of punishment for both of those crimes, typically, is up to seven years in the penitentiary.”

The new law would keep the manslaughter charge as a Class C felony, with the increased sentencing range up to 10 years, while the forgery charge would move to the new Class D, with a potential sentence up to seven years.

Joel Elmer, a division director in the state Public Defender system, also supports the proposed rewrite — and urged the lawmakers to make few changes to the proposed bill.

“It’s a very carefully crafted work product,” he said. “I think it’s very important to stick with the recommendations of the committee, because any deviation will affect that careful balance.”

Missouri Retailers Association President David Overfelt encouraged the committee to be careful that the rewritten code doesn’t erase changes that groups like his have gotten added to the statutes over the years, as their business needs have changed.

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