On October 2, one day after a subcommittee hearing and mark-up, the House Judiciary Committee approved an omnibus bill (H.R. 5422) aimed at preventing child abductions and providing stronger penalties for those who kidnap or exploit children.
In addition to five anti-crime provisions, the Child Abduction Prevention Act, sponsored by Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would authorize $25 million to establish a national AMBER alert communications network, similar to legislation (H.R. 5326) sponsored by Reps. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA) and Martin Frost (D-TX). The AMBER alert system is used to track and rescue abducted children and currently operates in 16 states and 32 localities. The Senate approved a similar bill (S. 2896) to expand the AMBER alert system on September 10 (see The Source, 9/13/02).
“This legislation has the potential to save the lives of the most innocent among us,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening statement. “It sends a message that child abductors will not escape punishment,” he added.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) disagreed. “Unfortunately this bill is a convoluted smorgasbord of sound-bite-based provisions,” he charged. “Only the AMBER program has proven to be something that works,” said Rep. Scott. “Most of the other provisions have been languishing in the Senate for the past three Congresses,” he added.
Rep. Smith pointed out that the AMBER provisions only impact situations in which the child already has been abducted. “The omnibus bill in its current form is a balanced approach and is the best way to go to deal with child abductions in this country,” he argued.
The committee adopted, by voice vote, an amendment by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) that would allow the Secret Service to provide forensic and investigative assistance to state and local law enforcement officials in an investigation involving missing or exploited children.
The committee rejected, by voice vote, an amendment by Rep. Scott that would have stricken all but the AMBER provisions in the bill.
The omnibus measure incorporates language from five other anti-crime bills, most of which have passed the House and are pending before the Senate. They include:
The legislation also would mandate a 20-year prison sentence for abducting or kidnapping anyone under the age of 18 and would reauthorize and double the annual grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to $20 million in each of FY2003 and FY2004.
Additionally, H.R. 5422 would eliminate the statute of limitations for the reporting of child abduction and sex crimes and would make child abuse, sexual abuse, and child torture cases that cause death first-degree murder charges.
On October 1, the House Judiciary Committee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security gave voice vote approval to H.R. 5422.
Prior to approving the bill, the subcommittee held a hearing to examine the legislation. Two witnesses provided testimony on the merits of the bill and expressed support for the measure.
Daniel Collins of the Department of Justice told the subcommittee, “The recent spate of child abductions has chilled the nation and underscored the need for congressional action to ensure that our nation’s laws do all that they can to protect our children from those who would prey on them.”
He explained that his agency supports the underlying principles of H.R. 5422. The legislation would enhance “law enforcement tools for identifying and apprehending offenders, by including child exploitation offenses such as wiretaps and by eliminating the statute of limitations for certain offenses,” he stressed. The bill also would increase penalties “to more accurately reflect the extreme seriousness of these offenses,” he said.
Mr. Collins described a detailed analysis of each section of the bill and added that his “department is eager to work with the subcommittee to devise a final bill that accomplishes prevention, enforcement, and punishment in the strongest and most effective manner.”
Ernest Allen of the NCMEC testified that his organization unequivocally supports the legislation. “We know all too well that when a child is kidnapped, time is the enemy, and we need every available resource to bring that child home,” he said.
Mr. Allen told the subcommittee that the NCMEC in cooperation with the National Association of Broadcasters, “has been waging a national campaign to place the AMBER program in every city and town in America.” He testified that H.R. 5422 would assist more communities to “develop AMBER plans by providing funding that can be used for much needed equipment such as the Emergency Alert System.”
“Because the timing of the implementation of the AMBER program nationwide is critical, NCMEC also supports AMBER alert language moving independently through Congress under H.R. 5326, which mirrors S. 2896 in the Senate,” he added.