Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of our state legislature this session has been the revamping of our state criminal code.
This 600-page piece of legislation, Senate Bill 491, is the product of untold hours of debate, analysis, and discussion among legislators, lawyers, and experts.
Much of what was done with this legislation was to update archaic language in the criminal code, make the language of the code more gender neutral, and toughen certain provisions relating to offenses against children and the elderly, violent offenses, and DWI offenses.
It also alters the state's incarceration sentencing scheme.
Some minor offenses, formerly misdemeanors, are now specified as infractions, for which there is no incarceration provided.
An additional classification of felonies was also added, from 4 classes to 5 to permit more flexibility in the number of years of incarceration that can be ordered in sentencing.
“This is a document that has been eight years in the making,” said Senate co-sponser of the bill, Jolie Justus, herself a lawyer from Kansas City. “This started with the Missouri Bar and their foresight that we needed to clean up our criminal code, and so they put together a group of an equal number of prosecutors and defense lawyers.”
“We had spent a lot of time down here in Jefferson City, passing a lot of new laws, passing a lot of new penalties, and we had a criminal code that was frankly unwieldy and not user friendly,” said Jolie, in support of the bill.
“In 1979 was the last revision, and of course we know the General Assembly passes lots of laws every year, and so the code becomes a disorganized code,” said state Rep. Stanley Cox, from Sedalia, a former prosecutor and current practicing lawyer. “It’s very important for not only the practitioner, but for the victim, and for anyone who would use it to understand it, and I think that’s the effort in the code.”
“In my 18 years in the general assembly, I have never seen such good cooperation among House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, the Missouri Bar, many private organizations, the prosecutors and defense attorneys, all working together for a common goal,” said State Rep. Chris Kelly, from Columbia, himself a lawyer, former judge and the longest serving member of the state legislature. “The new Missouri criminal code will substantially improve the enforcement of law and delivery of justice in the State of Missouri.”
Of course, anytime you revamp the criminal code with 600 pages of legislation, there may be gaps, oversights and unintended consequences.
And, keep in mind that it will be the job of defense lawyers to find flaws, oversights and loopholes in the new criminal law for the benefit of their clients.
In fact, Gov. Jay Nixon, formerly the long serving attorney general for the state, has identified several areas of unintended consequences himself, and has agreed to let the new bill become law without a veto based upon a pledge of key legislators to address certain problems before the bill becomes law.
For that reason, the new law is not slated to take effect until 2017, so that continued analysis and resultant legislative tweaking may take place to address such concerns before it goes into effect.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org