After 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie killed herself in 2007, Missouri lawmakers reacted the way they frequently do following a high-profile tragedy.
They passed a broad anti-stalking, anti-harassment law aimed at the kind of abuse that directly contributed to Megan's death. In her case, she was overcome with grief after finding out that her Myspace crush wasn't real but a cruel joke.
Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down part of what was called "Megan's law." The ruling came in a case involving a man who had entered his ex-wife's home illegally and had made unwanted phone calls to her. The court ruled that the law was overly broad.
The sponsor of the law, Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said lawmakers probably will go back to the drawing board.
What Mr. Rupp and his colleagues should do instead is use the court's decision as an impetus to make certain that next year's legislature adopts a streamlined criminal code.
There are countless examples of legislative overreach to crimes that tug on our emotions. They've clogged up the justice system for more than 30 years, the last time the code was rewritten. A committee of prosecutors, public defenders, judges and lawmakers already has done the heavy lifting, working with the Missouri Bar over the past few years to suggest many changes.
Most of those changes were incorporated into a bill filed this year by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City. The legislature failed to give the bill serious consideration, deciding instead to appoint a committee to study the issue. That committee's report is due in November.
The bipartisan committee should recommend that the new code be adopted by next year's legislature. Doing it this year would have given an added boost to the bill lawmakers passed as a result of a Pew Center study that recommended reducing the state's prison population. Much like the Pew recommendations, the criminal code changes would seek to keep the truly dangerous criminals locked up and decrease sentences for some lesser crimes.
A rewritten criminal code should offer clarity to prosecutors and judges as to which crimes to charge, and it should make sure that the sentence fits the crime. There are too many contradictions in the code based on legislative overreactions to crimes such as the one involving Megan Meier's harassers.
Among the practical changes needed is a reduction in the number of crimes that qualify the indigent to be represented by a public defender. The state's public defender offices are stretched so thin that they've been threatening to refuse to take cases. Part of the problem is a code that puts their focus on minor cases that, in most cases, shouldn't involve prison time.
Politically, passing a bill that streamlines the criminal code won't be easy. It will involve lawmakers showing restraint, rather than putting another meaningless, and sometimes counterproductive, "tough on crime" notch in their belts. Lawmakers will have to resist the temptation to overreact to the next high-profile crime.
All elements of Missouri's judicial system recognize the need for a criminal code rewrite. That should give lawmakers all the political cover they need.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.