Bill Also Heightens Sex Offense Penalties
By Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar, The Washington Post
The House and Senate overwhelming approved legislation yesterday
establishing a nationwide, federally subsidized alert system to help
rescue abducted children and impose tougher penalties on sexual
The "Amber alert" system, already operating in many states, conveys
information about suspected child abductions via highway signs and
radio and TV notices. The program attracted renewed attention
recently after the safe return of abducted Utah teenager Elizabeth
The House approved the bill 400 to 25; the Senate, 98 to 0. Of the 25
House members who voted nay, the only Republican was Rep. Ron Paul of
Texas. The measure awaits the signature of President Bush, who said
in a statement that the bill "provides us with additional tools to
prevent, investigate and prosecute violent crimes against our
Although the legislation had strong support in both parties, some
Senate Democrats accused Republicans of exploiting its popularity to
ram through more controversial provisions they said would unduly
limit judges' discretion to impose lighter sentences than those
prescribed by federal guidelines. "I am extremely disappointed that
Republicans are kidnapping the Amber alert bill in an attempt to
achieve partisan and wholly unrelated goals," Senate Minority Leader
Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said.
Daschle and other Democrats cited a letter from Chief Justice William
H. Rehnquist, who as head of the Judicial Conference wrote that the
bill "would do serious harm to the basic structure of the sentencing
guideline system and would seriously impair the ability of courts to
impose just and responsible sentences."
The bill calls for a mandatory life sentence for twice-convicted
sexual offenders; denies pretrial release for alleged child rapists
or child abductors; and extends the statute of limitations for child
abductions and sex crimes to the life of the alleged victim.
House Republicans such as Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.), who spearheaded the
fight for the sentencing proposals, said they were critical to "deter
and punish" sex offenders as well as communicate to the public about
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said several provisions would,
in effect, restrict judges' discretion in sentencing for all federal
crimes, not just those involving children and molestation. Among the
provisions he cited was one calling on the U.S. Sentencing Commission
to amend its guidelines to reduce discretion for lighter sentences.
A few House Democrats shared such concerns. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby"
Scott (D-Va.) suggested that the bill assumes that "judges can't be
trusted on who should be sentenced to life and who should be
sentenced to less."
In response, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch
(R-Utah) said the changes would affect only 2 percent of the federal
criminal caseload, and only crimes that involve children and sex
"This legislation will toughen the law to make abduction and abuse
less common in the first place," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
Senate negotiators also included language to expand the federal
crack-house law -- which makes it a felony to provide a space for
illegal drug use -- to include promoters of "rave" parties, club
owners and others if they "knowingly and intentionally" make space
available for that purpose. Several groups, including the American
Civil Liberties Union, restaurateurs and hotel owners, have protested
the move. The ACLU said it would punish the innocent, target a
particular genre of music and drive raves underground.
Supporters of the bill said a national alert system would make it
easier for law enforcement officers to capture kidnappers. Rep.
Martin Frost (D-Tex.) noted that since the establishment of the Amber
alert system in north Texas six years ago -- it is named after Amber
Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and murdered in Texas -- 53 children
have been safely returned to their families. "But it doesn't work
where it doesn't exist," Frost said.
The bill would provide $20 million annually to the Center for Missing
and Exploited Children and expand prosecutors' ability to obtain
wiretaps for monitoring suspected sex crimes, including pornography,
kidnapping, prostitution and sex trafficking.