JEFFERSON CITY — An overhaul of Missouri's criminal code the state House endorsed Tuesday would allow prosecutors to continue seeking jail time for first-time marijuana crimes, a key difference from a more lenient version senators approved a day earlier.
The House vote came one day after senators gave first-round approval to their version of the bill. Both measures now need one more favorable vote before moving to the other chamber.
The House bill would keep the current punishment of up to a year in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine for people convicted of possessing 35 grams or less of marijuana for the first time. But the Senate measure would eliminate the possibility of jail time and levy a fine between $250 and $1,000.
Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, the sponsor of the House version, said the criminal code overhaul isn't the appropriate place to discuss lower drug penalties. The legislation creates new classes of felonies and misdemeanors, and re-organizes various crimes to fit the new penalty structure.
The bill's Senate backers argue that removing the potential for jail time in some marijuana cases is important to ease the caseload of Missouri public defenders, who are appointed to defend drug charges if a prison sentence is a possibility.
Cox said negotiations are ongoing between the House and Senate over the difference.
Supporters argue the measure would enact tougher penalties for repeat and persistent offenders, while looking at whether first-time nonviolent criminals should have lengthy stays in prison.
"I think we have a piece of legislation that will make significant improvement in criminal law," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, a former circuit court judge.
Criminal Code is HB1371