Missouri hasn’t had a major reform of its criminal code since 1979. Senate Bill 253 finally is trying to make changes to how Missouri defines and classifies crimes and sentences lawbreakers. An overhaul is long overdue and would bring several benefits to Missouri’s criminal justice system.
The bill, which is sponsored by Missouri State Sen. Jolie Justus (D-10), is based on the Missouri Bar Criminal Law Committee’s 2013 Criminal Code Revision, according to the Missouri Bar Association. The bill is more than 1,000 pages long, which has slowed the process of passing it, according to the Feb. 9 KSHB article.
SB 253 still is in the hearings phase, according to an April 4 Kansas City Star article.
Some of the changes are simple and attempt to update the language of the law, including changing definitions to become more gender-neutral. Some changes are focused on bigger issues like sentencing and classification of crimes. Two criminal classes would be added to help fill gaps in the current classification system. The bill adds a class D misdemeanor, which would result in no associated jail time, and a class E felony. A class D misdemeanor would be for common, low-level first time offenses such as marijuana possession and petty theft. A class E felony would give prosecutors more flexibility in charging crimes by creating another tier by which to classify crimes, according to a Jan. 22 News Leader article.
The bill also would change the possession of controlled substances other than marijuana from a class C felony to a class E felony, which carries a maximum of four years in jail as opposed to the current maximum of seven years. It also would change the possession of marijuana from a class A misdemeanor to a class D misdemeanor, which would only carry a fine instead of a potential one year jail sentence. Another example of a class D misdemeanor would be a first time stealing offense for property valued less than $150.
The sentencing changes would benefit Missouri practically and fairly. Missouri should strive for a smarter, not more difficult, approach to criminal justice, and this bill achieves a smarter system. Missouri taxpayers spend an average of $22,350 for each inmate, according to a 2012 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. The current emphasis on hard punishments for all crime, including misdemeanor marijuana possession, is costing the state money. Changing certain crimes to a class D misdemeanor makes the state money through fines.
Aside from saving money, the bill could impact Missouri’s crime rate. Texas enacted similar changes and saw a 20 percent drop in crime and a 10 percent drop in incarceration rates, according to an April 9 CBS article.
Another noteworthy change raises the age a person becomes eligible for the death penalty from 16 to 18. It also eliminates the mandatory sentencing of anyone younger than 18 who commits first-degree murder. Currently, the sentencing must be life without possibility of parole. However, the Senate bill would expand the range to a minimum of 10 years up to life imprisonment.
Greater flexibility for sentencing makes the system more just. In the status quo, even if a prosecutor doesn’t believe a 16 year old deserves life imprisonment, he’s forced to try the case that way. Prosecutors and judges would be better positioned to make case-by-case decisions regarding sentencing than the current law allows. No one knows the details of a case better, yet their opinions are often disregarded. Reform allows for better judgment of what sentence is appropriate.
The bill makes a change to an outrageous law. I was shocked to learn Missouri law allows 16 year olds to be charged with the death penalty. Sixteen year olds aren’t even legal adults yet according to the state, but the state can sentence them to death. When only nine states even conduct executions, the death penalty for adolescents seems especially unjust.
Less than six weeks are left for Missouri’s legislative session and it would be nice to see our senators make a greater push toward passing this reform.