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‘Full-court press’ to pass criminal code revision

Updated 1/16 at 1:15 p.m.

Like swimmers easing themselves into a cold pool, the revisers of Missouri’s criminal code are nearly ready to take the plunge. But not everyone is sure what the water holds for them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the 739-page bill, sponsored by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, that would mark the first major reorganization of the code since 1979.

It was not the first hearing on the issue, but it was intended to be one of the last. The Senate alone has held 13 hearings on the issue over the last two years, not counting the numerous hearings on a companion effort in the House.

But Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, the chairman of the judiciary committee, said he intended just one more hearing before bringing the bill to a vote.

“The plan on this is to move the bill swiftly,” Dixon said.

Rep. Stan Cox, R-Sedalia, the sponsor of a similar bill in the House, also promised a “full-court press.” He told members of the House Judiciary Committee, which he leads, to expect a vote Jan. 28.

The House approved a version of the bill last year, but the effort ran out of time in the Senate.

Despite all the prior study, some people still have questions about the details of the new code – and about how judges and prosecutors will transition to it when it goes into effect in 2016.

“My concern with this all along has been changing everything at one time,” Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said at Wednesday’s hearing. While he supports the overall effort to revise the code, he said more efforts are needed to get judges and prosecutors up to speed on the vast number of changes.

The new criminal code seeks to simplify and clear up inconsistencies in state statutes governing crimes and punishments. Supporters say it isn’t meant to create or remove any crimes. Among the changes is to create a new class of felonies, allowing for more gradual transitions between the penalties for each of the five classes.

The Missouri Bar, the driving force behind the bill, said it plans to conduct extensive training sessions.

“I’m confident that the lawyers and judges of this state will get it,” Justus said.

As part of the revision process, Dixon’s office has posted rafts of information about the code on the judiciary committee’s website, complete with comparison charts to explain changes and a section for the public to leave comments.

Yet in some ways, the better known the bill is, the more questions it raises. David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association, told the Senate committee on Wednesday that he hadn’t previously testified on the bill, but as details about it have emerged his members have begun to worry that the new version of the code does away with recent legislation that made it easier to punish repeated thefts from stores.

Overfelt admitted, however, that he couldn’t be sure if the relevant provisions had simply been moved to another section of statute.

“It might be somewhere in here,” he said. “This is difficult to read.” He added that he didn’t have a lawyer on staff to help him sort through it.

“It can give you a headache even if you have a lawyer on staff, let me tell you,” Dixon quipped.

Roy Richter, a judge on the Court of Appeals Eastern District, was the Montgomery County prosecutor and later that county’s associate judge around the time of the last criminal code revision.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “We got through. I’m sure we will again.” He urged the committee to make the changes with as little disruption as possible. “Anytime you guys pass a 700-plus page bill, in my current line of work on the appeals court that’s job security.”

The Senate bill is SB491. The House bill is HB1371.