Missouri Senate begins criminal code debate

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by JORDAN SHAPIRO

AP

Posted on March 16, 2014 at 9:33 AM

Updated Sunday, Mar 16 at 9:13 PM

 JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri senators began debating a proposed overhaul of the state's criminal laws this week, but significant obstacles remain to passing the legislation this year.

The bill's backers expressed confidence the measure could reach Gov. Jay Nixon's desk this year, but acknowledged it could be a challenging road. The measure's 1,100-page size has made it difficult for lawmakers to sift through and penalty reductions for some drug users have been controversial.

But a new obstacle emerged this week as senators began to worry the Democratic governor could veto the bill and all their work would be for naught.

"I'm waiting for a commitment from the governor's office if he's in favor of that criminal code bill," said Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin. "So I'm wondering how much time I want to spend on it if he's not even going to sign it or even get engaged on it."

A spokesman for Nixon declined to comment on the legislation.

The bill's sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, said conversations with the governor's staff have not included talk of a veto. The Kansas City Democrat added that discussions with Nixon's office were ongoing.

Senate leaders also asked for Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster to weigh in on the legislation as the top law enforcement official in the state.

 "Why should we stick our neck out there when the chief executive isn't going to weigh in with his opinion or the attorney general won't say what he likes or doesn't like about the bill?" asked Senate President Pro Tem Dempsey.

Koster said in a written statement to The Associated Press that he is reviewing the bill's provision and will consult with senators when lawmakers return from their weeklong spring break.

Justus said the biggest obstacle facing the bill is its size. Dempsey echoed those remarks and said it would be easy for lawmakers to oppose the bill because of its complexity.

"It's an area that not a lot of us have experience in," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "We are very concerned about the repercussions if we do something wrong."

The legislation would create new classes of felonies and misdemeanors, as well as rename and re-organize certain crimes. Some penalties would be strengthened, such as the maximum jail term for involuntary manslaughter while driving drunk. But some crimes would have their punishments reduced.

Under the Senate bill, first-time offenders of possessing 35 grams or less of marijuana would not be eligible to serve jail time. The maximum sentences for felony drug possession charges would also be lowered from seven years to four.

Some lawmakers oppose the lower penalties and argue it should be considered separately from the larger criminal code overhaul. But Senate judiciary committee chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said the change is important to ease the caseload of Missouri public defenders, who are appointed to defend drug charges if a prison sentence is a possibility.

The House version doesn't include changes to drug crime sentences. That bill is currently on the debate calendar, and House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said advancing the bill is a top priority when lawmakers return from break on March 24.

Justus said she is working on another version of the Senate bill to remove some controversial provisions and to scale down its size.

Missouri hasn't passed a substantial rewrite of its criminal laws since 1979.

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