The Missouri Senate is set to begin debate on an overhaul of the state’s criminal laws that supporters say is necessary because the current justice system is too confusing and has too many crimes.
Senate Republican leaders say the bill could be debated on the floor as early as this week. It would create new classes of felonies and misdemeanors while attempting to streamline some criminal offenses that are infrequently charged.
“It will basically update what is happening in our criminal justice system and our laws” that are routinely expanded by the legislature, said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican.
Supporters of revamping the criminal code argue that existing laws are too complex and convoluted. The criminal code last received a makeover in 1979, but since then the legislature created additional offenses.
Among the new crimes are different assault charges with varying degrees of punishment based on a victim’s age or occupation. Missouri law already includes specific crimes of first-, second- and third-degree assault, but even that has been expanded over the years to include separate offenses against corrections officers, the elderly, utility workers or mental health employees.
The criminal code measure would group many of those offenses into the existing tiers for assault charges, but with a “special victims” designation that could carry increased prison sentences.
“We are trying to spread all of the offenses out over a spectrum and keep them in context,” said Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services and one of the drafters of the criminal code legislation.
Even as lawmakers prepare to debate the criminal code revision, some legislators continue to file bills that would add to the current list of crimes.
A Missouri House committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday on legislation that would make assaulting an animal protection officer a new crime. Earlier this month, a different House panel considered a similar bill applying to mass transit workers.
The patchwork of crimes has led to a high number of infrequently charged offenses, which bill supporters say creates inefficiencies. According to the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, 232 crimes were charged one time last year, and an additional 131 offenses were charged only twice. Some of those charges were different types of assaults that would be combined with other offenses under the criminal code bill.
While Senate leaders have named the legislation a priority, its prospects of passing this year are far from certain. Dempsey and Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard acknowledged the bill’s 1,100 pages would make it difficult for lawmakers to work with and would require a lot of debate time.
“I don’t like the idea that we’ll pass it before we read it, you know, and I am not going to take that chance,” said Richard, a Joplin Republican.
Some senators also have expressed concern that the measure, which would take effect in January 2016, seeks to do too much at one time. They would like to see the changes rolled out incrementally over several years.
The House sponsor of the criminal code bill said the legislation needs to be enacted all at one time since it creates new felony and misdemeanor classes. Rep. Stanley Cox, a Sedalia Republican and a longtime practicing attorney, said there weren’t significant problems the last time the criminal code was revamped.