Amber alert bill moves forward

Congress OKs legislation that also toughens rules for sex crime sentencing

April 11, 2003|By Nick Anderson and Elizabeth Levin | Nick Anderson and Elizabeth Levin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Congress overwhelmingly approved an anti-crime bill yesterday that would expand the interstate Amber alert system for abducted children, stiffen sentencing rules for sex criminals and kidnappers and outlaw certain forms of child pornography on the Internet.

Passage came despite a late appeal from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to leave intact federal guidelines that give judges discretion in sentencing.

The House approved the bill 400-25. The Senate followed suit hours later, 98-0. The bill, written by senior House and Senate Republicans, is expected to be signed into law by President Bush.

Despite the lopsided votes, some leading Democrats sided with Rehnquist - a conservative Republican - in complaining about the provisions that would constrain the sentencing authority of federal trial judges.

Republicans rebuffed the criticism.

"Those who try to stop this bill are subverting the will of the American people who want us to put kidnappers in jail and protect our children," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "It is time to help parents protect their children."

In the House vote, 23 Democrats joined independent Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in voting against the bill.

The bill's signature provision would fortify the Amber alert network, named for Amber Hagerman of Texas, a 9-year-old who was kidnapped and killed in 1996. The network, now operating in more than 30 states, publicizes missing-children cases through electronic road signs and television and radio broadcasts.

The bill, building on actions Bush took in October, would make the network nationwide and authorize $10 million in increased Justice Department assistance.

Elizabeth Smart case

The issue received renewed attention following the case of Elizabeth Smart, a Utah teen-ager who was returned to her family in March months after being kidnapped. The Smart family lobbied Congress to pass the Amber alert bill.

The Senate twice overwhelmingly passed bills to extend nationwide the Amber alert system. But in the House, Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, added several provisions to the alert system bill and persuaded a House-Senate conference committee to accept them.

One major section, responding to a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a federal ban on "virtual" pornography on the Internet, clarified the law in an attempt to make it constitutional.

It narrowed the definition of prohibited forms of child pornography circulated on computers and allowed those accused of trafficking in such pornography to escape conviction if they can show they did not use actual children to produce sexually explicit images.

The bill also would:

Require mandatory life-imprisonment sentences for twice-convicted child-sex offenders, a provision dubbed "two strikes, you're out."

Require 20 years in prison for nonfamily members who kidnap a minor.

Expand wiretapping authority in criminal sex cases involving children.

Make it a federal crime to use a misleading domain name to trick adults into viewing obscenity on the Internet or cause children to see "material that is harmful to minors."

Make it easier to prosecute sex-tour operators and people who travel overseas for sex with minors.

Require law enforcement agencies to report missing persons under the age of 21 to the National Crime Information Center - current law only requires the reporting of those under 18.

Impose changes meant to force judges to adhere more strictly to federal sentencing guidelines or document why they don't.

Rehnquist objects

Some of the sentencing provisions drew fire from Rehnquist, who as chief justice heads the federal Judicial Conference, a policy-making group of top judges that advises Congress.

"The Judicial Conference believes that this legislation, if enacted, 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," Rehnquist wrote in a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Nick Anderson and Elizabeth Levin write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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