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Nation in brief

Amber Alert bills unfrozen

By Times wire services
Published April 9, 2003

WASHINGTON - Less than a month after Ed Smart, father of rescued Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, publicly remonstrated Congress for failing to enact a national Amber Alert program, Senate and House conference members agreed Tuesday on a package of child-protection measures that lawmakers expect to be approved this week and sent to the president.

"This is a big victory," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, a long-time champion of a national program of Amber Alerts, the voluntary broadcast system for abducted children. The alerts are named for nine-year old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, who was kidnapped and killed in 1996.

The effort to institute a national system of Amber Alerts into law was stymied by a power struggle between the Senate and House. House members of the judiciary committee were pushing a comprehensive package of child protection legislation that included controversial provisions opposed by key senators.

Despite the pressure to act on Amber Alerts as a separate bill, House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., insisted on moving the Child Abduction Prevention Act, which included provisions to crack down on exploitation of children and increase penalties on perpetrators.

The bill codifies the Amber Alert program currently in place in the Departments of Justice and Transportation and authorizes $25-million in funding for states to build electronic road signs and make other communications network improvements.

The legislation provides a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for non-familial abductions of a child under the age of 18, lifetime supervision for sex offenders and mandatory life imprisonment for second-time offenders. It also limits pretrial release for crimes of child abduction and sex offenses and extends the statute of limitations.

Newsroom minority presence inches up

NEW ORLEANS - The number of minorities in newsrooms has inched up from a year ago, but still lags behind both the national population as a whole and the goal editors have set for themselves, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and Indians made up 12.5 percent of newsroom staff in 2002 - one-half of a percentage point above the previous year, but well behind the national level of 31.1 percent of the population.

The minority total was still 3 percentage points below the benchmark set by ASNE, which wants the percentage of minorities in newsrooms to equal their share of the population as a whole by 2025.

Minority staffers at the St. Petersburg Times make up 13.8 percent of the newsroom in a community that is 20.6 percent minority. It ranks 56th in the nation among newspapers in minority staffers compared to community makeup.

Shuttle investigators criticize data problems

HOUSTON - NASA relied on a flawed analysis of debris damage on Columbia and allowed a web of miscommunication to block a team of engineers from getting photos of the shuttle in orbit, accident investigators said Tuesday.

In some of the sharpest criticism voiced since the investigation board began digging into the cause of the disaster, chairman Harold Gehman Jr. called the computer model used to assess the damage done to the shuttle "rudimentary" and not meant to predict safety.

SPACEWALK: Astronauts aboard the international space station ventured outside for more than six hours Tuesday to wrap up maintenance tasks on what was probably the last spacewalk for months.

Commander Ken Bowersox and science officer Don Pettit finished their work early and spent another 80 minutes collecting tools and tethers that had been left outside during previous spacewalks.

Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin assisted from inside the station.

The three men are supposed to return home in early May after they are replaced by astronaut Ed Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. [Last modified April 18, 2003, 13:36:44]