JEFFERSON CITY — People who commit crimes against children could face longer prison sentences as a result of legislation that reorganizes Missouri's criminal laws and has passed in both the House and Senate.
Missouri KidsFirst, a child advocacy group, said Friday that the proposed changes would go a long way in holding child sex offenders accountable for their crimes. The group's top priority was making sure the criminal code overhaul did not reduce punishments for people who hurt children.
Lawmakers agreed and included several provisions to strengthen penalties. Although the legislation's main focus is the creation of additional crime classifications to bridge a sentencing gap, the House and Senate bills would also give longer jail stays to family members who sexually abuse children or abandon them without proper care.
"This code will provide prosecutors with important tools as they seek to deliver swift justice to people who commit crimes against children," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. The House and Senate have each passed a version of the criminal code and now must work out differences to pass an identical bill by mid-May.
Under the measure, incest would be added as an additional factor that could result in longer prison stays for people convicted of child sexual abuse. If incest is part of a sex crime, the offender could be charged at a higher felony classification.
"The other things that create aggravating factors aren't necessarily in place when you have child molestation, because most of the time, unfortunately, it happens within the family," said sponsoring Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, who's the minority leader.
Missouri KidsFirst said two-thirds of child sexual abuse cases involve incest.
"The closer the child is to the person that is harming them, the more long-term health and social impacts on the child," deputy director Emily van Schenkhof said.
Current aggravating factors in sexual abuse charges include inflicting serious injury, being a repeat offender, brandishing a weapon or engaging in a ritual. Van Schenkhof said that adding incest as an aggravating factor could result in increased sentences during plea bargaining, which she said is common in child sex abuse cases.
Plea bargains often reduce the amount of jail time proscribed by law. Under the proposed criminal code, harsher sentences are a possibility because the enhanced penalty caused by the aggravating factor could be removed in exchange for serving the complete jail sentence, van Schenkhof said.
Child abandonment crimes would also carry stiffer sentences. Currently, parents who abandon children younger than 4 years old face a prison sentence between five and 15 years. The Senate bill keeps that punishment but would impose an increased 10- to 30-year jail term if the child died during the crime. Parents would also face stiffer penalties for leaving children under age 8, if the child is seriously injured or dies.
In addition, some forms of child molestation would no longer be considered a misdemeanor offense under the criminal code overhaul. There are two degrees of child molestation in Missouri law now: One is considered a felony, and the other is a misdemeanor. The legislation would create four types of molestation, and all would be felony offenses.
While the increased penalties for certain crimes would help punish the offenders, van Schenkhof said they don't often reflect the true damage done to children.
"Laws are nice and tidily written, but the reality of child sex crimes are very sad and are horrific," she said. "We have to do a better job at holding these people accountable."