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Congress Approves 'Amber Alert' System

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 offenders.

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 Smart.

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 children."

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 kidnappings.

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 offenses.

"This legislation will toughen the law to make abduction and abuse less common in the first place," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said.

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.

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