Mo. lawmakers begin quest to update criminal code

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The last time Missouri's criminal code received a makeover, Jimmy Carter was president and Missouri's Legislature was dominated by Democrats. But two 1,000-page bills introduced this year may change that fact and help clear up the code.

Republican Rep. Stanley Cox and Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus are trying to update the state's code for the first time since 1979. At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, the process of pushing the bill through the Legislature began, but the effort to reform the code began in earnest five years ago when the Missouri Bar began working to "restore some order to the chaos."

Missouri Bar President Patrick Starke said as new legislators have been elected and new crimes created, the code has physically become cumbersome.

"The more complicated something is, the more mistakes are made. Mistakes cost money and mistakes can potentially cost someone their freedom," Starke said.

Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services and one of the measure's drafters, said the existing code has duplicate crimes and variances. Lamb pointed to different thresholds for how much money involved makes a crime, such as burglary, a felony as opposed to a lesser crime.

"Something as important as criminal law needs to be understood by the general public," Lamb said.

In addition to confusion, sentencing has been a problem with the existing code.

Under current law, felonies are classified alphabetically, with "A" being the most severe crime and "D" being the least. Justus, a Kansas City attorney, described the current felony scale as a "ladder missing a rung." The middle of the ladder -- the current gap between "B" and "C" felonies -- is the most significant problem.

Now, a person convicted of a "C" class felony gets a prison sentence between one and seven years, while a "B" class charge comes with a sentence between five and 15 years. The new criminal code would bridge the gap in prison terms by creating a new class "E" felony. By creating the new class, "C" class felons would now be sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.

Lamb said these sentencing changes are the most important facet of the proposed code. Right now, forgery and involuntary manslaughter would garner the same one- to seven-year sentence. By adding a new felony class, involuntary manslaughter can be moved to a new category and be considered on a different sentencing spectrum.

A new misdemeanor class would also be created for first-time offenders and would carry a fine of up to $500, but no jail time. Under the new code, people guilty of driving without a valid license would be guilty of a misdemeanor, instead of receiving the $300 fine they do now.

The bill also attempts to address inflation's effect on criminal fines. Since the code was last revised, fine amounts have remained the same, but the overhaul would increase the maximum fine for an individual convicted of a felony to $10,000, up from the current $5,000.

One of the biggest challenges facing the legislation is its size. Starke said it would take some time for the bill to pass and for lawmakers to understand its content.

"Any legislator will want to do due diligence on this 1,000-page bill," he said.

Along with Lamb, Gwenda Robinson of the state public defender system in St. Louis helped to draft the new code.

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