WASHINGTON — Despite pleas from the family of kidnapped Elizabeth Smart last year, Congress failed to pass a bill to create a national AMBER Alert system to help find abducted children. But 25 senators reintroduced the bill last week.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said at a news conference, "The recent wave of child abductions across our nation, including the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in my own home state of Utah, has highlighted the need for legislation to enhance our ability to protect our nation's children against predators of all types."
AMBER Alert systems use electronic highway signs and the Emergency Broadcast System to quickly spread word about abductions moments after they occur, and increase the chance that the public can help find the children. They have been credited with short-circuiting dozens of abductions in states where they are used.
AMBER Alert systems are named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Texas, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996 — but the name is also an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. Utah's similar system is called a Rachael Alert, after Rachael Runyon, a 3-year-old Sunset girl who was abducted and murdered in 1982.
Hatch is one of the chief cosponsors of the reintroduced bill, along with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
Last year, Hatch helped the bill sail through the Senate in his role as ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee — passing it in committee just two days after it was introduced, and passing it in the Senate the next week. He is now incoming chairman of that committee, which may help him duplicate the previous success.
However, the House failed to pass the bill last year, but did pass similar legislation as part of another bill that the Senate did not pass.
Smart's family became a key advocate for the bill last year, and unsuccessfully pleaded with Congress to pass it before it adjourned last year.
However, President Bush by executive order put into place many of the goals of the legislation, including creating a central point of contact in the Justice Department to coordinate AMBER Alerts nationwide, and to help expand them. He also released $10 million in discretionary money to help states implement the systems.
Hatch said expanding the AMBER Alert systems nationwide is important because "when a child is abducted, time is of the essence. All too often it is only a matter of hours before a kidnapper commits an act of violence against the child."
Hatch this week also reintroduced what he calls the PROTECT Act to make it easier to go after those who distribute child pornography. He said he intends to introduce more legislation in coming days "that will enhance existing laws, investigative tools, criminal penalties and child crime resources in a variety of ways."
Hatch said he wants to ensure that America devotes "the same intensity of purpose to crimes committed against children as we do to other serious criminal offenses, such as those involving terrorism."