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Legislators consider bill to decriminalize attempted suicide

ANNAPOLIS – A suicide attempt is evidence of a mental health problem that needs treatment, not a common-law crime that merits punishment, a state senator said Wednesday in urging his colleagues to stop treating people who try to kill themselves as criminals.

“We have to affirmatively put in our law that attempted suicide is not a crime,” Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which he sits. “The easiest way to destigmatize mental illness is to decriminalize attempted suicide.”

Waldstreicher’s decriminalization legislation, Senate Bill 394, was prompted by the plea-bargained conviction in district court last year of a Caroline County man who tried to kill himself. The man had also been charged with reckless endangerment and endangering his safety and that of his brother.

The man was sentenced to a suspended prison term of three years and two years of probation.  Then-interim Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley told The Baltimore Sun that his goal was not to punish the man but to get him into mental health treatment.

In the past five years, 10 people have been charged with attempted suicide statewide, including the lone conviction, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services said in explanatory papers accompanying S.B. 395.

The bill is supported by the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, which endorses treatment for, rather than incarceration of, people who try to kill themselves.

“This is not the time to involve the criminal justice system,” Shannon Hall, the association’s executive director, told the Senate panel.

But two committee members voiced concern that decriminalization could undermine the ability of police to help someone contemplating suicide.

Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, wondered aloud whether people prevented by police from killing themselves could sue the officers for interfering with their right to engage in a lawful activity.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said a primary function of officers is to prevent crime.

“If that (assisted suicide) is not a crime, how can they (police) freeze the situation long enough to get them help?” Cassilly asked.

Waldstreicher responded that police retain the authority to detain and seek help for people who present a harm to themselves or others.

The House of Delegates has given preliminary approval to its version of the decriminalization legislation. House Bill 77, which could come up for a final House vote this week, is sponsored by Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery.

Maryland’s attempted suicide law follows English common law, which considered attempted suicide a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and imprisonment, according to the Department of Legislative Services. Suicide was punishable by a dishonorable burial without religious ceremony and forfeiture of the decedent’s property to the crown, the department stated.

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