2019 | Government

Bill Would Abolish Attempted Suicide as a Crime

Lawmakers say common law offense is ‘very antiquated’ and distracts from mental health intervention

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A Montgomery County state delegate wants to repeal a centuries-old common law and decriminalize attempted suicide.

Suicide attempts in Maryland remain punishable under English common law, a set of parameters still recognized by the state.

Del. David Moon, a Democrat representing Takoma Park and Silver Spring, is sponsoring House Bill 77 to remove the offense from the books, which England did in 1961.

“We’re at a point in history where this seems very, very antiquated and I think the vast majority of behavioral health professionals would find this wholly inappropriate use of law-enforcement powers,” Moon said.

The purpose of the bill is to stop police and prosecutors from charging residents with crimes instead of going directly to mental health services when they’ve attempted suicide, Moon said.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Democrat representing Kensington, is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.

“Criminalizing mental illness is a terrible mistake,” Waldstreicher said. “We should be going in the opposite direction. We should be not only decriminalizing mental illness, but destigmatizing mental illness. The prosecution of someone for attempted suicide undermines that goal.”

Waldstreicher said he’s confident the bill will move forward following hearings in a House of Delegates committee last week.

Attempted suicide is seldom prosecuted.

The crime has been charged 10 times at the District Court level statewide over the past five years, according to a summary of the bill. Only one instance resulted in a guilty plea, and it was that case that Moon said spurred him to file the bill.

A Caroline County man was convicted of attempted suicide in February 2018 as part of a plea agreement. The man was also charged with reckless endangerment and endangering his safety and the safety of his brother while intoxicated.

The state’s offer was to plead guilty to a single attempted-suicide charge.

Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley prosecuted the case, and said the defense attorney advised his client to plead guilty to attempted suicide.

Riley clarified the charge was originally filed by a District Court commissioner, not a police officer or the State’s Attorney’s Office, and he has requested the commissioner contact him directly before filing such a charge again.

“It’s not something that I’m every going to miss, assuming that it passes,” Riley said. “It’s not something that we intend on using in the future.”

The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office has no position on the bills, and spokesman Ramon Korionoff said he wasn’t aware of any prosecutions.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland is supporting the House and Senate legislation.

“Criminalizing suicide unjustly punishes individuals who need health care, not jail time,” NAMI Maryland Executive Director Kate Farinholt said in a statement. “We can do better to provide resources, treatments, and supports to individuals with mental illness.”

NAMI recently started a movement to avoid using the word “commit” when discussing suicide, “because of the connotation that they did something illegal,” NAMI Montgomery County Executive Director Stephanie Rosen said.