House Approves Amber Alert Package

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The House joined the Senate Thursday in approving money for a nationwide child kidnapping "Amber Alert" system, but a dispute over the House's addition of other provisions for sex offenses could delay the system's implementation.

The GOP-controlled House pushed through a package of child protection measures by an overwhelming vote of 410-14, including "Amber" and "Code Adam" alerts designed to quickly stop kidnappers, a ban on computer-simulated child pornography and new punitive measures for sex offenses.

The legislation "not only gets the word out after a kidnapping, but it also takes strong steps to keep them from happening in the first place," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

President Bush, in a statement, said he would sign the legislation "as quickly as possible."

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 legislation would create a national child kidnapping notification network and provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training.

But while the Senate has approved the Amber Alert legislation, it has not approved some of the other House measures, meaning a compromise committee will have to be formed. It is not known when that committee will begin its work or how long it will take, although Democrats said the House's action means nothing will get to Bush for months.

"I hope a conference committee acts quickly on a bill to strengthen Amber Alerts, but abducted children don't have time to wait for politics as usual," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas.

Sensenbrenner said the Senate's bill didn't go far enough in protecting children.

"It may make some feel good but it will not help protect America's children from kidnapping and sexual abuse in the first place," he said.

Under Sensenbrenner's bill, people accused of raping or abducting children would be denied bond and held in jail until their trials. The statute of limitations on child abductions and sex crimes would be eliminated and life sentences would be required for twice-convicted sex offenders.

Senators said they would work to find some middle ground.

"This is critical legislation that we should pass right away," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "We can't let controversial provisions -- regardless of their intent or merit -- sentence this bill to a legislative limbo."

The House bill would also institute "Code Adam" alerts in all government buildings.

Under that plan, a description of children reported missing in government buildings would be communicated around the building and employees would monitor exits. Police would be called if the child isn't found within 10 minutes.

The program is named after 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a shopping mall in Florida and murdered in 1981.

The House also added an amendment aimed at banning computer-simulated child pornography. It was in response to last year's Supreme Court ruling that part of a 1996 law intended to stop such pornography was unconstitutionally vague.

Sensenbrenner's insistence on new punitive measures for sex offenses was criticized earlier this month by the family of Elizabeth Smart, reunited with her parents after being kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City suburb months ago.

"Our children can't afford to wait another day for the National Amber Alert bill so we urge the House not to waste this opportunity," the family said in a letter to the House Wednesday.