The creators of the AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert program got more than they bargained for when a bill nationalizing the system was signed into law by President Bush last Wednesday. Legislation addressing child pornography and child sex offenders were also attached to the bill.
The AMBER Alert is a child abduction alert system used in 41 states, including Michigan.
“It’s working very, very well for the states,” said U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland), who served on a committee that helped revise the House and Senate versions of the bill. Hoekstra cited a recent success of the program in early March, when a 14 year-old girl was abducted from her home in southwest Michigan. The AMBER Alert helped locate the girl near Sacramento. It was also issued Saturday for a three-year old girl taken from Madison Heights
“Families can all feel safer now that this much-needed child protection legislation has become law. It is a broad measure that deters and punishes those who prey on children before they can be harmed,” Hoekstra said in a written statement.
Congress passed the bill – with the added legislation – by overwhelming majorities of 400-25 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. While members of Congress eagerly supported the AMBER Alert program, a few felt they could not sponsor the added legislation.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Detroit) cast one of the “no” votes because of the additions the bill contained.
“While I fully support a national system that will provide coordination in cracking down on child abductors and abusers, there are many provisions in the bill that infringe on the livelihoods of innocent individuals,” she said in a written statement.
Specifically, the bill includes mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders -some federal judges feel this undermines their discretionary authority.
U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Florida), author of the amendment addressing child sex offender sentencing, said the new punishments are necessary.
“This amendment sets an appropriate and meaningful appellate standard that will prevent child offenders from receiving a sentence that does not justify crimes committed against our most fragile citizens,” he said in a written statement.
The amendment also included mandatory life sentences for two-time child sex offenders, another provision Kilpatrick said she could not support.
“Everyone assumes child sex offenders are 40-year old males,” said Denise Mixon, Kilpatrick’s press secretary.
She said Kilpatrick voted against the legislation because the new law could send any two-time child sex offender to jail for life – even a seventeen-year old caught having consensual sex with someone under the age of sixteen.
While these penalties may seem harsh to the bill’s opponents, University social work Prof. David Burton said punishment might not be the most effective way to reduce child sex crimes.
“It really might be a better idea to provide treatment if you want to keep (the child sex offenders) in jail longer. We really need to change how they think and feel,” he said.
Michigan requires convicted sex offenders to register with the state police, and their personal and criminal information is made available online, Burton said. He added that the registry merely notifies the public – it is not an effective deterrent.
Like the registry, the new child sex offender legislation attached to the AMBER Alert bill, serves mostly to calm people down, Burton said.
“People are trying to quell public fears,” he added.