Nixon’s balk draws heat

Sponsors of a proposed overhaul of Missouri’s criminal laws were frustrated Monday that new concerns are being raised about their project — from Gov. Jay Nixon and his staff.

After lawmakers left the Capitol on March 13 for their spring break, Nixon told the News Tribune he was thankful for all the hard work that has gone into proposing the revised criminal code, but that it should be broken into smaller pieces.

“That’s not the answer,” Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City and the bill’s sponsor, told reporters Monday night. “I think it’s impossible to do a criminal code rewrite in a piecemeal fashion.

“The reason we are doing the criminal code in the form that we are is because (piecemeal) is how we’ve done the criminal law for the past 40 years — a little here, a little there.”

During a meeting Monday with Senate leadership on a wide range of topics, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said that Nixon’s chief of staff, John Watson, “said they’re not going to sign a bill that size.”

The week before their spring break, senators went through an 1,110-page bill in great detail, and sponsors promised to return with a smaller version after the break.

They cut about 400 pages from the proposal, down to 707 pages.

“We took out anything related to weapons or to conceal-and-carry, because both of those issues are in complete flux right now in the Legislature,” Justus explained. “We’re going to address those at a separate time.

“The bulk of the pages that we took out had to do with our new Class E felony.”

The proposal to rewrite Missouri’s criminal code began about eight years ago, with a special Missouri Bar subcommittee that included prosecutors, public defenders and private-practice criminal defense lawyers.

Noting a gap in the punishment range for Class C felonies — up to seven years in prison — and the more serious Class B felonies, prison time from five-to-15 years, the Bar committee recommended adding a new Class C category of crimes with possible sentences up to 10 years, then changing the current Class C to Class D and changing the current Class D to a new Class E.

“The pages that we took out were the pages that spent a lot of time moving felony categories (which) weren’t changes in penalty but only were changes in the letter,” Justus noted.

“We added the new, enhanced C felony, but we no longer had all of the changes after that.”

And, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said the smaller version distributed Monday also delayed the start date for the change to Jan. 1, 2017 — a year later than the previous version.

“You have to look at the whole thing within the context of itself,” Dixon said.

“Just because a bill is 1,100 pages is not a reason to veto a bill.

“If 197 members of the Legislature can read the bill, make sure that it’s congruent with the values of the citizens in their districts — and we expect Missourians to live under either the existing code or the new code being presented — we can surely have time to review it over two years and determine if it needs changes.”

Both Dixon and Justus said they planned to meet with Nixon’s staff, to see what other changes they can make to win the governor’s support.

“Until the sponsors of the criminal code bill, the governor’s office and the prosecutors get together and agree on a path forward, we are not going to be bringing the bill back up on the Senate floor,” Dempsey told reporters.

Justus said lawmakers must work to preserve the consensus reached by prosecutors and defense lawyers in the original proposal.

Dixon said: “I think the votes are there to pass it — we just need to get the governor engaged in the final product and get this thing resolved so that it’s, once and for all, an effective tool for prosecutors, judges and public defenders.”

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