Criminal Code changes inch forward as some question size
Sunday, March 16, 2014
For only the second time in Missouri’s history, the General Assembly is being asked to rewrite the entire Criminal Code section of state law.
Although it likely will change during the bill-writing process, the current proposal being considered by the state Senate is about 1,100 pages thick.
Attorney General Chris Koster said Friday his staff is “reviewing the bill’s provisions and will consult with Senate leadership following (this week’s) legislative recess.”
In an email, Koster also said: “The Missouri Bar, our state’s prosecuting attorneys, and the legislature should be commended for their efforts to update Missouri’s criminal code.”
Koster was responding after state Senate President Tom Dempsey told reporters Thursday: “There’s still a number of people who are reluctant to vote on it without the governor and the attorney general having weighed in.”
Dempsey said several senators, whom he didn’t name, asked him last week: “Why should we stick our neck out there if the chief executive isn’t going to weigh in with (his) opinion?
“Are there improvements the governor and attorney general think should be made in the bill, prior to it passing the Senate?”
In an email late Friday afternoon, Channing Ansley, Gov. Jay Nixon’s communications director, said: “The governor appreciates the time and effort that have gone in to this undertaking, but when it comes to changes to the criminal code, there is simply no room for error.
“That is why, given the high stakes and massive scale of this project, the governor has encouraged members of the General Assembly to consider making these changes in a series of more manageable bills, rather than with a single piece of omnibus legislation.”
But that’s not the correct way to go, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City and the proposal’s Senate sponsor, has explained several times, because it moves a lot of existing laws from one section of the statutes to another — and that needs to be done at the same time.
Acknowledging that some lawmakers may want to vote no because it’s such a big bill, Dempsey said: “I think they’ve made a strong case on why it has to be that way.”
Justus noted Missouri prosecutors and defense lawyers — both in the private sector and public defenders — have agreed on all the proposed changes.
“It is not easy, as you might imagine, to get those two groups to agree on anything,” Justus said Tuesday, at the beginning of her lengthy discussion of what the bill would, and wouldn’t, do.
“This bill does not create any new crimes, nor does it criminalize any actions,” she said. “From a policy perspective, this is actually a piece of plain-vanilla legislation.”
Of course, lawmakers propose changes to the criminal laws every year — more often adding new crimes than removing older ones.
But, since Missouri became a state in 1821, the only other major effort to redo the complete collection of criminal statutes came in the mid-1970s — with the current code kicking into effect in 1979.
To move the proposal forward, the state Senate spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday last week in an unusual mode — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, and Justus talked to each other about all the changes the proposal makes in the current law books, going through the proposed bill almost line-by-line.
“It’s an area where not a lot of us have experience — criminal law or legal experience — and are very concerned about the repercussions if we do something wrong,” Dempsey said. “It’s hard to get a bill like that moving, because you’re always worried about the story that would be written five years from now, about somebody who found a loophole, is free, whom everyone believes should be behind bars.
“You can discuss it, but it’s such a detailed subject matter that you can still be confused by it. So, I think moving slow, going through it line by line is the way that it has to be done.”
Justus, Dixon and their staff members are spending at least part of this week’s legislative spring break to rewrite the bill, fixing problems senators brought them during last week’s discussion.
Justus called the current code “unwieldy and confusing, not user-friendly,” while the final version should be “a concise set of rules and consequences” for the criminal justice system to follow.
Dixon told reporters: “It’s a very thoughtful piece of legislation and it needs — and we invite —the scrutiny of every member of the Legislature, of the executive branch.”
Missourians can review the proposals, and make comments about them, through a special Senate Judiciary Committee website, www.senate.mo.gov/crimcode/crimcode.aspx.
The House last year passed its version of the criminal code rewrite, so leaders think they can get the entire bill passed this year.
Dixon said: “Every Missourian can rest assured that, at the end of the day, we’re going to have a more clear, a more concise and a more understandable criminal code that judges, prosecutors and public defenders can use more effectively to protect the lives, liberty and property of every citizen of our state.”
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