UPDATE: Missouri Senate endorses criminal code overhaul

Monday, April 7, 2014 | 8:05 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate endorsed legislation Monday to overhaul the state's criminal laws for the first time since 1979 and create new punishment ranges for felony and misdemeanor crimes.

The bill would need another affirmative vote in the Senate before it could move to the House. Supporters say it would enact tougher penalties for repeat and persistent offenders, while looking at whether first-time nonviolent criminals should have lengthy stays in prison.

"It gets the right criminals off the street and keeps them off the street," said sponsoring Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kanas City.

Monday's vote comes after weeks of negotiations among lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon's administration, which expressed reservations that lawmakers were trying to do too much at the same time.

Acknowledging those concerns, the measure's backers approved a version that's 400 pages shorter than the original proposal. Justus said the pages were "probably unnecessarily" removed, but that the bill was still effective.

"We are still tackling the toughest portions of getting this done," she said about the pared-down measure. "It still addresses all the substantive issues."

Nixon's office and some other lawmakers had suggested the measure should be broken down into smaller, separate bills to deal with individual subsets of crimes, such as assault and property offenses. But the measure's backers insist that approach wouldn't work because the measure changes various jail terms throughout all types of crime to conform to the new felony and misdemeanor structure.

The new version of the legislation, which now runs about 700 pages, also addresses a previous point of contention over the reduction in punishment for some first-time marijuana offenders.

People convicted of possessing 35 grams or less of pot would not face jail time but could be fined anywhere from $250 to $1,000. Currently, offenders can receive up to a year in jail and a fine of any amount up to $1,000.

"This is actually a strengthening of sorts from what is being carried out now," said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, who noted the lack of a minimum fine under current law.

An earlier version of the criminal code overhaul would also have eliminated jail time but reduced the maximum fine to $500.

While lowering potential penalties in that area, the bill boosts prison sentences for drunk drivers that kill someone while operating a vehicle. Parents and guardians charged with abandoning their children would face a longer prison term if the child dies or is seriously injured during the crime.

The criminal code overhaul was drafted by a Missouri Bar committee made up of prosecutors, public defenders, private defense attorneys, judges and lawmakers.

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