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Comprehensive Rewrite Of Missouri Criminal Code Passes Easily But Future Unsure

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri lawmakers have sent Gov. Jay Nixon a bill to rewrite the state's criminal code for the first time in more than 30 years. The wide-ranging proposal took several years and two legislative sessions to hammer out, but it's unclear whether Nixon intends to sign it.

At a hefty 608 pages, Senate Bill 491 is still shorter than earlier versions, which weighed in at 1,104 and 739 pages, respectively.  This version would create a new class of both felonies and misdemeanors -- for instance, crimes falling under the new Class D misdemeanor category would be punishable by fines only, no jail time, an apparent move to prevent prison overcrowding.

Some specifics within the bill:

  • No jail time for those convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.
  • Currently, consent cannot be used as a defense in a sex offense case if the victim is younger than 12; the new version would increase the age t0 14 years.
  • Expands definition of "dangerous felony" to include first- and second-degree child molestation and habitual DWI offenders.
  • Ignition interlock devises for vehicles used by intoxicated driving offenders no longer have to be equipped with GPS.
  • The crime of endangering a visitor to a state correctional facility is expanded to include visitors to city and county jails.

The criminal code rewrite does not, however, expunge the criminal records of young nonviolent offenders, which led State Rep. Kimberly Gardner, D-St. Louis, to vote "no."
"People are being discriminated against in employment (and) student financial aid," Gardiner said.  "How can we tell people to go out and find a job when they have barriers?"

Fellow Democrat Chris Kelly of Columbia defended the bill.

"Is it everything I want? No, it isn't," Kelly said, "but the fact of the matter is the bill is a major step forward for the criminal law in the state of Missouri."

The sponsor, state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said expungement should be dealt with in a separate bill.

The criminal code rewrite passed the Missouri House on Thursday 140-15, and about an hour later the Senate passed it 28-2.  Both margins are easily large enough to overcome any veto by Nixon, a Democrat and former attorney general.  He issued the following statement Thursday:

"As we communicated to the bill's sponsors, we remain concerned about their decision to pass a measure that so extensively rewrites the criminal code, including laws related to drunk driving and methamphetamine, and to do so in a manner that limits the time available for the executive branch to review it.  This is an area where there is simply no room for error and therefore, in the limited time we have been given, we will review the bill as thoroughly as possible and take the appropriate action to protect public safety and hold criminals accountable."

Once the criminal code rewrite hits the governor's desk, he'll have 15 days to take action.  If he vetoes it, lawmakers are expected to attempt an override during the final week of session.

"I think the fact that we now have the Missouri Sheriffs Association, the Police Chiefs Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, all of the prosecutors, coming out and saying 'we need this as a crime-fighting tool,' I think that sends a strong message," Justus said.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.