Criminal code proposal could lower drug penalties

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Buried within a 1,100-page bill that would overhaul Missouri's criminal laws is a substantive change in how the state would handle drug offenders.

The legislation, a product of a Missouri Bar committee comprised of prosecutors and public defenders, would reduce the penalties for possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana for first-time offenders. Under current law, marijuana possession carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"It's time for us to get smart on crime," said Senate judiciary committee chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. "Our prisons are full and we need to lock up violent offenders."

The Senate's version of the criminal code legislation, which was endorsed by Dixon's committee this past week, would prohibit first-time marijuana offenders from serving any jail time. It would also reduce the maximum fine to $500. If someone was found guilty of possession a second time then he or she could face up to one year in jail and a larger fine.

The Senate bill would also reduce the maximum prison sentence for other felony drug possession offenses. Current law provides a seven-year maximum, but the Senate measure would reduce that possible sentence to four years.

Those proposed changes, however, aren't getting traction on the other side of the Capitol. The House sponsor of the criminal code legislation said he doesn't think the bill is the right place to debate or change the state's drug policy.

"I believe earnestly that a 1,000 page bill is not the proper vehicle to make substantive changes in controversial issues," said Rep. Stanley Cox, a Sedalia Republican and former prosecutor.

Cox, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he opposes reducing penalties for drug offenses. His committee has also endorsed the criminal code overhaul, but its version would leave the punishments for drug possession the same as current law.

Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who has filed an initiative petition in Missouri that would mirror Colorado's recreational marijuana policy, said the penalty reduction in the Senate bill would be a "baby step" in the right direction.

"It is a waste of public resources to continue treating people in possession of small amounts of marijuana like big-time criminals," he said.

There are currently other bills in the Legislature that would decriminalize certain marijuana offenses in Missouri. A House Democrat's bill would cap fines for certain marijuana law offenders at $250 and would prohibit arrest. But some parts of Missouri aren't waiting on the Legislature or voters to change the state's drug policy.

Columbia and St. Louis have both adopted so-called decriminalization ordinances, reducing a first-time offense for possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana to a low-level misdemeanor similar to a traffic ticket. Instead of being arrested, offenders in those cities get a summons to appear in court and face a fine rather than jail.

Both the House and Senate criminal code bills would add new classes of felonies and misdemeanors. The legislation has been dubbed a top priority by Senate Republican leaders. Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell has also recently said it is time to revamp the state's criminal laws.

Missouri's criminal laws were last revised in 1979. But since then, lawmakers have added new crimes and penalties, some of which aren't enforced often. Supporters of overhauling the criminal code say this has created a complex and confusing criminal justice system in Missouri. Similar legislation passed the House last year, but was not considered in the Senate.

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