Bush signs child-safety bill enacting Amber Alert system

Thursday, May 1, 2003

WASHINGTON -- News of missing children will speed to the public over radio, TV and electronic highway signs in more states under the Amber Alert legislation, signed Wednesday by President Bush.

Already operating in 41 states, such networks quickly distribute information about kidnapped children and their abductors.

"It is important to expand the Amber Alert systems so police and sheriff departments gain thousands or even millions of allies in the search for missing children," Bush said at a bill signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

"Every person who would think of abducting a child can know that a wide net will be cast," he said. "They may be found by a police cruiser or by the car right next to them on a highway. These criminals can know that any driver they pass could be the one that spots them and brings them to justice."

Watching Bush sign the measure, which also includes stiffer federal penalties for crimes against children and gives prosecutors tools to fight child pornography, was a tearful experience for the mother of the bill's namesake, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped in 1996 and never came home.

Smart makes appearance

It was a happier day for 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart, a teen from Salt Lake City who was making her first public appearance since being found in March, nine months after she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom. Smart smiled shyly and offered no words.

Her parents, Ed and Louis Smart, fought hard for the legislation, which provides matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training to expand alert systems across America.

Tears rolled down the face of Amber's mother, Donna Norris, as Bush spoke of signing the legislation in memory of her daughter.

"It's bittersweet," said Ms. Norris, who wore a button with the face of her daughter, who was abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later was found murdered. "It's a chance to save other children's lives and I'm proud of it."

After the ceremony, Ms. Norris hugged Elizabeth Smart, who stood between her parents, her blond hair pulled back with a white bow. Two people have been charged in her kidnapping.

At the urging of Republicans in Congress, the new law strengthens federal criminal penalties for child pornographers, sexual abusers and kidnappers.

Democrats argued that restricting federal judges' ability to reduce sentences for such crimes against children should have been more thoroughly debated, but the bill passed with broad bipartisan support.

: 400-25 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, said the legislation included needed provisions to protect children. But he protested the inclusion of the new sentencing guidelines.

"These provisions may do serious harm to the basic structure of the sentencing guideline system and ... seriously impair the ability of courts to impose just and responsible sentences," he said.

Other provisions would prohibit the solicitation of anything represented to be child pornography, make it easier to prosecute sex tour operators and people who travel overseas for sex with minors, allow federal judges to order supervision of released sex offenders for the rest of their lives, make it illegal to attempt to take or keep a child outside the United States to avoid custody battles, and require convicted child pornographers to register in the National Sex Offender Registry.

It also allows for background checks for people who work with children and makes "virtual" child pornography -- a practice pedophiles used on the Internet -- illegal.

The package also includes provisions to discourage drug use in clubs -- a measure that businesses worry could land them in legal trouble. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that people who operate hotels, clubs, sporting events or any other place where someone might use drugs could face prosecution under the measure. People convicted under the law would face prison terms or civil fines of up to $250,000 or twice the gross revenue of their particular event.

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