Subscribe for $3 for three months

JEFFERSON CITY • Under current Missouri state law, a person who passes a bad check for more than $500 and another who kills someone while driving drunk are charged with the same class of felony.

Ten years ago, a group of prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Association of Prosecutors and a co-chair of the team that first began re-examining the state’s criminal code.

The old sentencing range for felonies starts at the bottom with a D class, Lamb explained, which are punished with a maximum of four years in prison. Class C felonies carry up to seven years in prison. The next level, a B felony, can carry up to 15 years, and a class A felony warrants 30 years to life.

“A and B are pretty well stair-stepped,” Lamb said. “But there was a big gap between C and B.”

That’s finally about to change, after years of vetting, 30 public hearings in the Legislature and a two-year waiting period to work out kinks before implementation.

The first major overhaul of Missouri’s criminal code since the 1970s takes effect Sunday.

Highlights include the addition of a fifth felony class, an E felony, that will allow a more stair-stepped approach to punishment, tougher sentences for drunken drivers and the elimination of jail time for first-time offenders convicted of possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana.

The changes also have been lauded as tough on crimes against children, adding incest as an aggravating factor in child sex abuse cases and increasing the number of felony child molestation charges.

And this overhaul will correct a legislative oversight leading to confusion in the statutes regarding felony stealing. Conflicting guidelines were pointed out by the Missouri Supreme Court, mobilizing the state’s public defenders to pursue getting their clients’ charges knocked down to misdemeanors.

At one point, both sides of the courtroom — lawyers who prosecute crime and lawyers who defend alleged offenders — pored through the state’s crime laws word by word, line by line.

The result of that is a lot of cleanup and consolidation, such as condensing Missouri’s 25 assault statutes, said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, who co-sponsored the package.

The change over marijuana possession in particular could save taxpayers money and relieve an overburdened system of public defenders, Dixon said.

“Some argued that we’re going to send the wrong signal. But many of us, including myself, thought a fine was better [for possession of small amounts of marijuana] than a criminal record, which can make it more difficult to get a job,” Dixon said.

But the bipartisan bill’s greatest accomplishment, Dixon said, has more to do with the larger picture than any specific change.

“It was a legislative process that really is an example to future legislators, in my opinion,” he said.

But although its supporters applauded the revision as an example of compromise at work, others had misgivings, including Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, who raised concern about the size and scope of the project. Along with some lawmakers, he wondered if the 1,000-page bill would be better broken up into several smaller measures.

Nixon never signed the end product but didn’t veto it either, allowing it to quietly become law.

Others, including former state Rep. Kimberly Gardner, D-St. Louis and the incoming St. Louis circuit attorney, had hoped the bill would address expunging nonviolent felonies.

Recently, the coming changes have stirred confusion and alarm in area schools. Some school districts, including Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant, have interpreted the new laws to mean that students can be charged with a felony for getting into a fight at school, because that could be considered third-degree assault. But several legal experts have called that an inaccurate interpretation.

Lamb points out that current law has a provision saying any assault on school property is an automatic felony, which will be eliminated in the update. There will be a stricter definition of third-degree assault, reducing the number of instances in which school altercations can be considered felonies.

Lamb’s hope now is that the criminal code is revisited more often, so future updates don’t have to be so drastic.

“You learn the lessons of the past so you don’t repeat it in the future,” he said. “The key going forward is not to wait another 30 years and have another 10-year process.”

Dixon encourages all current and future legislators to study the code before introducing “tough on crime” bills.

“That’s what caused the code to be messed up in the first place — introducing new crimes without looking at the whole thing,” Dixon said.

Kristen Taketa of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report from St. Louis.