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House OKs Nationwide Expansion of Amber Alerts

March 28, 2003|Elizabeth Levin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to expand nationwide use of the Amber alert system, which enlists the public's help in searching for missing children. The measure was included in a bill meant to deter child abductions and sexual predators.

Although expansion of the alert system has firm support in both the Senate and the House, critics of the bill said that other provisions that have been added to it -- including minimum sentencing, expansion of wiretap authority and mandatory sentencing of sex offenders -- would prevent it from becoming law.

The bill, approved by the House, 410-14, now goes to the Senate, which in January passed legislation that approved only the nationwide expansion of the Amber alert system. The House and the Senate passed similar bills last year, but the legislation died when Congress adjourned without agreeing on a compromise.

A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the Senate's Amber alert bill, said his boss had hoped that the House would approve the alert system expansion in a separate bill, one that "would not have held Amber alert hostage to other legislative agenda."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), co-sponsor of the House legislation, said he wanted a bill that would not only help recover missing children but would also prevent crimes from happening in the first place.

"The bill strengthens penalties against kidnapping and aids law enforcement agencies to effectively prevent, investigate and prosecute crimes against children," he said.

The Amber alert system has been implemented in more than two-thirds of the states, and it gained national attention in August when it helped locate two teenage girls in California.

President Bush commended the House for enacting legislation that would expand the alert system nationwide.

"I look forward to legislation reaching my desk as quickly as possible so that I may sign it into law," Bush said in a statement.

Last year, Bush moved to expand the alert system by making funds available to improve it and asking the Justice Department to name a new Amber alert coordinator.

Amber -- which stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response -- notifies the public through electronic road signs and TV and radio broadcasts that a child is missing. The system is named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old who was kidnapped and killed in Arlington, Texas, in 1996.

The system has helped locate 52 missing children since 1996, including five in March, according to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va.

After several high-profile kidnappings last year, Allen said he supports the bills passed in both the Senate and the House. Establishing a nationwide Amber alert system is important, he said, but it is only "one of the things that America needs to do."

The family of Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old found this month after being kidnapped last year from her Utah home, has written several letters asking House Republicans to accept the simpler Amber alert bill and vote on the other provisions separately.

"Our children can't afford to wait another day for the national Amber alert bill, so we urge the House not to waste this opportunity to act on the legislation that has already passed the Senate twice," the Smart family wrote the lawmakers.

Other amendments added to the bill would ban child pornography using computer-generated images and would make it illegal to use a misleading domain name, leading youngsters to obscene content.

The legislation also would eliminate the statute of limitations for child abductions and sex crimes, deny pretrial release for child rapists and child abductors, require mandatory life sentencing for twice-convicted sex offenders, establish lifetime supervision of released sex offenders and include a minimum 20-year prison sentencing for kidnappers.

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