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Nixon Expresses Caution About Criminal Code Overhaul

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Jay Nixon says he's wary about signing a wholesale revision of the state’s criminal code. 

For the past few years, the state’s legal community has made overhauling the code a major priority. The legislation being considered by the Missouri General Assembly reassesses punishments for certain crimes, including eliminating jail time for some misdemeanors. 

The House and Senate passed separate versions of the bill this week. And while differences remain to be worked out – including penalties for marijuana possession – both versions passed with overwhelming majorities. That bodes well for a compromise version to get to Nixon's desk. 

But despite bipartisan support for the effort, Nixon is cautious about signing such a big piece of legislation into law. He told St. Louis Public Radio Friday that there’s no room for error.

“There’s a very high bar,” said Nixon, after speaking to students in Wentzville. “When you’re rewriting the entirety of the criminal code, it’s very, very important that it be done correctly. You can’t make mistakes.”

Missouri Bar Association President Jack Brady said in an interview that people have spent years fine-tuning aspects of the bill. He said that an overhaul of the code is needed to bring clarity to prosecutors, public defenders and defense attorneys – especially since it hasn’t been seriously revised since the 1970s.

“If you’re convicted of a third offense for drunk driving and you kill somebody in your car, you can have the same jail sentence for writing a bad check. So it’s just inconsistent and unfair,” Brady said. “It’s going to save money because people won’t be going to jail for first offenses and nonviolent offenses. And it’s going to make people safer because for the truly violent crimes, you can send people away for a lot longer.”

Brady emphasized that the final version of the bill won’t go into effect immediately, giving legislators plenty of time to revise any mistakes. But Nixon said he doesn’t find that argument terribly convincing.

“Some of the folks say, ‘We’ll make an effective date two years from now and you can sign it,’” Nixon said. “That’s not the way I sign criminal law bills. We’re going to do it right. And we’re committing a lot of time, energy and effort to be involved in their process.”   

This year could be the critical window for making changes to the code. Legislators who’ve spent time on the issue – like Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, and state Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia – are leaving the legislature.

Because of those legislative departures, state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, penned a letter to Nixon in late March stating, “If we do not pass it this year, it almost certainly will not happen in the foreseeable future.” And even though Senate Judiciary Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, will still be in office after 2014, Brady said, Cox's, Justus' and Kelly’s departure will have an impact.

“It’ll be a problem,” Brady said. “It’s a big bill. You’ve got to understand it. And those three politicians have done a wonderful job. So we really want to pass it this year for that reason. It’s time. It’s been vetted. It’s got a lot of support. There’s no reason not to pass it.” 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.