February 2, 2013
State Rep. Stan Cox hopes his House Bill 210 will provide greater transparency and utility to the state’s criminal code.
The Sedalia Republican’s bill to reorganize the code, the first such reorganization since 1979, is based on recommendations proposed following a four-year project of the Missouri Bar Association headed up by Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, and Gwenda Robinson, district defender for the Appellate/Post-conviction Office of the Missouri Public Defender System.
“I think it simply makes it more understandable to prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, as well as the general public,” said Cox, who serves as chairman of the Missouri House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. “The Bar committee suggested, and I agree, it would be a benefit to users of the code, essentially everyone, to clarify it. Over the years the General Assembly just passes new bills and the previously organized code becomes a disorganized code. That was the origin of it.”
While HB 210 touches nearly every aspect of the code, proponents say the biggest changes involve the addition of a fifth class of felony charge and adjustments to the penalty to help ensure the penalty fits the severity of the charge.
Lamb told the Democrat on Thursday that under the current code’s four classes of felony (A, B, C, and D) there exists a notable gap between penalties for a class-C felony (one to seven years) and a class-B felony (five to 15 years). Under the proposed system a new class-C would be created with a new penalty of three to 10 years.
The changes would then reclassify class-C felonies as class-D, and would create the new class-E felony, which would apply to less severe crimes and first offenses.
“This allows for existing crimes to be organized so the spectrum of punishment can vary rationally depending on the level of violence and how heinous the crime is and the defendant’s history of prior offenses,” Lamb said.
By example, Lamb said, current class-C offenses include crimes ranging from possession of drugs, forgery and stealing up to involuntary manslaughter. Lamb said the result is that someone charged with check forgery faces the same penalty as someone who causes another person’s death while driving intoxicated.
Lamb called the project “labor intensive” but praised the group’s ability to reach consensus on the revisions, a point echoed by Robinson.
Although coming from opposing sides of the justice system, Robinson said committee members took a broad approach to the changes.
“There were those from the prosecutors’ side as well as criminal defense lawyers. But those concerns were not made a priority. We based it on what would be best for the criminal justice system as a whole,” Robinson said.
In addition to sentencing changes, the revisions also update antiquated language, streamlines redundant statues and updates fine schedules to account for inflation.
Cox said he hopes to get the bill scheduled for committee hearings next week, and then plans to review individual chapters of the criminal code each week through the spring. Similar legislation was introduced during the last session but never saw a final vote. State Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, is sponsoring similar legislation in the Missouri Senate.
“I have a number of other bills to consider this year, but I think there is an appetite for seeing this issue addressed,” Cox said.
Highlights of House Bill 210
These are the highlights of House Bill 210, which seeks to revise the Missouri Criminal Code:
• Creates the first cohesive criminal code since the original criminal code was passed in 1979
• Increases the fine schedule for all classes of crimes for the first time since the 1970s to account for inflation
• Provides for consistency in the felony threshold value for property-related crimes
• Creates a new fourth class of misdemeanor (Class D) for low-level, high-volume, first-time offenses to be disposed of by means of a fine, while maintaining the seriousness of a misdemeanor conviction rather than an infraction
• Creates a new fifth class of felony to allow prosecutors more flexibility in the charging and disposition of criminal cases
• Reorganizes the assault chapter from the current more than 25 separate assault offenses to four degrees of assault and four degrees of domestic assault, while respecting the public policy of the General Assembly by defining and creating punishment enhancements for the assault of “special victims” (law enforcement, etc.)
• Restructures drug-related crimes using a stair-step approach, to allow prosecutors, defense attorneys and courts mo