Editorial: Fund the Ashanti Alert initiative

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When Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner managed to get both houses of Congress to pass, and President Donald Trump to sign, the Ashanti Alert Act in December 2018, advocates breathed a sigh of relief.

They believed that something important had been accomplished, something that would not only be a fitting tribute to a young woman who lost her life in a terribly violent way, but that would also help protect others from a similar fate.

But the effort is far from over. The two and a half years since then have offered an unfortunate example of how just having a law on the books, no matter how well-intentioned it might be, doesn’t accomplish the goal.

There must be enough money, resources and direction to put that law into action, to go from worthwhile idea to effective operation. So far, that money has been in short supply.

The Ashanti Alert was inspired by the abduction and brutal murder of Ashanti Billie, a 19-year-old college student who disappeared in September 2017 after leaving her job on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach. Her body was found more than 300 miles away in Charlotte, N.C., 11 days after she was reported missing — days when someone, somewhere might have noticed that something was wrong, if flashing highway signs, text messages, public broadcasts or news reports had made them aware of her plight.

Unfortunately, the sort of wide-ranging alert that might have saved Billie could not be set into motion because her case fell through a wide gap in the system at the time. Her desperate parents, knowing she was unlikely to have left voluntarily, pleaded for help. But Billie, at 19, was a bit too old for an Amber Alert and much too young for a Silver Alert. Those alerts are used by law enforcement to spread the word about children or older adults who have gone missing and might be in danger.

Billie’s fate made all too obvious the need for a similar alert system to get the word out about missing or endangered adults.

Despite the deep divisions in our government, Warner managed to get the bill establishing a national alert system passed unanimously.

Then things bogged down. The necessary follow-through of giving the Department of Justice direction and enough resources to establish a nationwide Ashanti Alert system didn’t happen for far too long.

Virginia has proved that it’s possible to make an Ashanti Alert system work. The commonwealth’s statewide system began operating three months after approving it in 2018. That pilot program has worked, and a year ago the federal government began using it as a model to help other states, territories and tribes set up their own Ashanti Alert programs.

A nationwide program is much more complicated and expensive, of course, and it makes sense that a pilot program came first.

Now it’s time to get the federal program fully operating.

Warner, along with fellow Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are urging congressional leaders to make sure the Ashanti Alert system gets its full share when this year’s government funding bill is passed. In a formal letter of request, they have asked leaders to ensure that there is sufficient money and that the Department of Justice fully implements the system.

Warner was able to help get $1 million in the December emergency government funding legislation to help get things going in the nationwide system.

Passing the Ashanti Alert Act was the right thing to do. A young woman’s death, sadly, made the need obvious. When fully operational, the system should be able to save the lives of many other vulnerable people in years to come.

The groundwork has been laid. Congress should act promptly to include in this next spending bill all the money needed so that the Justice Department, law-enforcement agencies and supporters will have the resources to make this important alert system work.

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