UPDATE: Missouri lawmakers pass separate criminal code bills

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 12:48 p.m. CDT; updated 6:56 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 10, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House and Senate passed separate bills Thursday to reorganize the state's criminal laws, and now lawmakers are focused on resolving differences between the two versions.

House members sent the Senate their bill with a 130-24 vote, and senators followed suit by passing their own measure 29-3. Both proposals would create new classes of felonies and misdemeanors, and reorder various crimes to fit the new punishment scale.

Lawmakers last overhauled the criminal code in 1979, and lawmakers have since created several additional crimes, which bill supporters say has created confusion and legal ambiguities.

"This is something that is past time and going to be very important for the state of Missouri," said Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, one of the bill's sponsors.

Both the House and Senate legislation would create a new felony punishment range that carries a three- to 10-year prison term for certain crimes, bridging the gap between existing felony classes that carry an authorized jail term between five and 15 years and one that stipulates a maximum four-year prison stint.

The measures would create a new misdemeanor class for which jail time wouldn't be an option. Under the current law, all misdemeanor offenses carry possible sentences of up to 15 days to one year. Fines would also be raised under both bills.

Supporters now must work out differences between the two versions and agree on an identical measure before lawmakers adjourn in mid-May.

One of the major differences is a dispute over whether the legislation should reduce the penalty for those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana for the first time. The House measure leaves the current punishment of up to a year in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine in place. The Senate version would take the potential for jail time off the table and levy a fine between $250 and $1,000.

House and Senate sponsors said they expect to come up with a solution and reach an agreement, but the measure could still face opposition from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who would need to sign the compromise version. Nixon has expressed reservations that the bill does too much at one time, and his office has said the governor would prefer to see the 700-page legislation divided into separate bills to avoid making a mistake.

"There is simply no room for error," Nixon told reporters Thursday.

Supporters said that concern was unfounded given the amount of vetting and number of public hearings on the legislation.

Some Democrats opposed the House version Thursday because it doesn't include the possibility for people to have convictions expunged for certain nonviolent offenses.

"People need a second chance at life," said Rep. Kimberly Gardner, D-St. Louis. "How can we do one thing without the other?"

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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