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Amber Alert bill pushed to House

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON -- A week after being criticized by Elizabeth Smart's father, House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner pushed kidnapping notification legislation to the full House Tuesday, still attached to child protection measures unlikely to win Senate passage.

Although Ed Smart and others have urged the House to pass the "Amber Alert" legislation by itself, Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans say the bill's child protection measures are at least as important as the notification legislation.

"I think prevention is much more important than notification, as important that is," said Sensenbrenner as his committee sent the bill to the House on an 18-2 vote.

Democratic Reps. Robert Scott of Virginia and Melvin Watt of North Carolina voted against the bill while Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, voted present.

Scott said Sensenbrenner's insistence on his full package means the bill will get stuck in a House-Senate negotiating committee for months instead of going quickly to President Bush for his signature.

Sensenbrenner's bill "makes good soundbites, not good policy," Scott said.

The package could be considered by the full House as early as this week. It was overwhelmingly passed by the House last year, but was not considered by the Senate.

Instead, the Senate both last year and this year passed a stand-alone bill. Sensenbrenner and House Republicans refused to let Democrats bring that bill up for consideration in the committee or on the House floor Tuesday.

Amber alerts are named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later found murdered. Bulletins are distributed quickly through radio and television broadcasts and electronic highway signs about kidnapped children and their abductors. The alerts are credited with the rescues of at least 34 children since 1996, the Justice Department has reported.

The AMBER -- America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response -- alert legislation would create a national child kidnapping notification network and provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training.

Sensenbrenner's bill would also deny pretrial release for child rapists and abductors; eliminate the statute of limitations on child abductions and sex crimes; allow judges to extend the supervised term of released sex offenders to life; require life sentences for twice-convicted sex offenders; double the money for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to $20 million a year through 2005; and mandate a 20-year sentence for a family member who kidnaps a child.

Several of those proposals have passed the House but not been taken up by the Senate.

"This legislation would not only get the word out after a kidnapping but takes strong steps to prevent them from occurring in the first place," Sensenbrenner said.

The Smart family called on Sensenbrenner to let the national notification bill move on without the rest of his package last week.

"His unwillingness to let the AMBER Alert pass on its own is hurting children," Ed Smart said.

Elizabeth Smart, 15, was reunited with her family last Wednesday, nine months after being kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City suburb.

Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the AMBER Alert bill alone will not do anything the Justice Department isn't already doing.

"If the Senate's AMBER Alert bill were enacted into law today, nothing would change," he said.


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