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Our Opinion: Wise approach to revise criminal code

News Tribune editorial

Missouri’s criminal laws are among those that deserve to be addressed together rather than separately.

A massive, 739-page bill revamping criminal statutes is being expedited by supporters in the Legislature. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon wants the revised criminal code advanced out of committee by the end of January to permit a “thorough job of vetting” by lawmakers.

A wholesale, rather than piecemeal, approach is not always, or often, the better approach.

As a rule, specific, targeted legislation reduces errors and unintended consequences.

An exception to the rule is the criminal code. Another is tax credit reform. And both are exceptions for the same two reasons.

First, piecemeal changes over the years have created imbalances. Although a change, in and of itself, may be reasonable, it may be unfair or inequitable when viewed from a broader perspective.

When this happens, a periodic, comprehensive review and revision is in order.

Second, the revised criminal code is neither a slap-dash nor rush job.

The state’s criminal laws last were rewritten and reorganized in the 1970s, and have been in effect since 1979 — then added to numerous times since then.

Sponsoring Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, points out the Missouri Bar began reviewing the existing criminal code about eight years ago. Prosecutors, public defenders and private practice attorneys worked on recommendations before seeking legislative revision in 2012.

The criminal code was discussed and debated last year — the House passed its version late in the session, but the Senate ran out of time before it could debate the House bill — and the Senate committee already has held 13 hearings on the bill.

Justus characterized the proposal as a “consensus document,” and added: Both sides said they felt a little bit of heartburn over it, but both sides felt it was necessary for the administration of justice …”

The revised code is a massive bill that deserves a thorough vetting, but it always reflects a wise approach to eliminate inconsistencies and inequities in the state’s criminal statutes.

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