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Congress on Thursday passed the so-called Amber Alert bill — and a modified version of its controversial Feeney Amendment — sending the bill to President Bush’s desk in time for Congress’ Easter recess. Among several provisions, the amendment restricts federal judges’ ability to depart downward when handing down sentences, particularly in crimes against children. Although the bill passed the Senate 98-0, several Democrats criticized the amendment. It passed the House earlier in the day, 400-25. President Bush issued a statement in favor of the bill: “We must use every available resource to find and safely return missing children to their families and their homes, and we must use every available tool to vigorously prosecute and punish those who would do our children harm.” The changes have been criticized by defense lawyers, as well as by the nation’s federal judges through the U.S. Judicial Conference. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy also criticized federal judges’ loss of sentencing discretion and the resulting escalation in the nation’s prison population during Capitol Hill testimony Wednesday. According to supporters, the compromise amendment eliminates departures only in crimes against children, but Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. disputes that. Kennedy was a key architect behind the original guidelines. “When you read the language it doesn’t do that. There’s still a problem there,” said Kennedy spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. “We spent 15 years putting these sentencing guidelines together. You can’t dismantle them in a matter of hours.” Under the new law, departures in all cases must be reported to the Department of Justice. In addition, the bill modifies the structure of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Previously, the commission consisted of at least three sitting judges, but it traditionally had more. The new bill restricts the number of judges to no more than three, making them a minority on the commission. Cutter said that Sen. Kennedy will continue to fight the amendment through hearings and new legislation. Kennedy offered an amendment to the bill on the Senate floor Thursday, but it was shot down by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a pivotal supporter of the amendment. “Effectively, [the bill] does away with downward departures,” Cutter said.

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