Maryland wants to Decriminalize Suicide.

The issue of suicide as a felony has resurfaced. This time, however, the discussion isn’t centered around physician-assisted suicide. Instead, the focus is the criminality of attempted suicide. In February 2019, a 56-year-old man in Maryland plead guilty to a count of “attempted suicide” and was sentenced to a three-year suspended jail sentence, and two years of probation (Washington Post, 2019). Oddly enough, this is only one of ten attempted suicides that have been prosecuted in Maryland in the past five years (Washington Post, 2019).   

Suicide as a criminal offense dates back to 13th-century English common law, where suicide was considered a crime against “God and the King” (Washington Post, 2019). Early common law held suicide as punishable by ignominious burial on the highway, and by forfeiture of goods and chattels (Markson, 1969). This common law rule was initiated after America declared its Independence from Britain in 1776. However, many states eliminated the common law by total reliance on statutory law, whereby suicide was ignored and the common law against suicide was made ineffective (Wright, 1975). Still, several states maintained the common law principle that suicide was, in fact, a crime (Wright, 1975).

State courts continued to be confronted with this issue, and faced with the question of how suicide should be dealt with in the law. Many states have refrained from decriminalization based on the opinion that criminalization will deter suicide attempts, or at least provide grounds for involuntary hospitalization or treatment.

This debate has spanned from 13th-century common law all the way to 2019, where Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) recently passed a bill to decriminalize the act in Maryland (Washington Post, 2019). Moon highlighted that one of the reasons prosecutors still resort to using this dated law is to get people into involuntary hospitalization and treatment. His bill received criticism from lawmakers who feared this would garner support to legalizing physician-assisted suicide; however, suicide prevention groups vocalized their support, noting it may help shift the discourse to prevention and de-stigmatization rather than punishment. After much debate, Moon’s bill decriminalizing attempted suicide in Maryland was passed in April, 2019. This ruling may re-ignite conversations in states like Virginia, where attempts to decriminalize attempted suicide have failed.

This discussion goes beyond the specific issue of decriminalization of suicide attempts, and raises important questions about how the justice system should deal with mental illness. Moon notes that “if we keep enabling the law enforcement function to take over the public health function, we are never going to fix [these mental health issues]” (Washington Post, 2019). Suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and is continuously on the rise (National Institute for Mental Health, 2019). Is the best way to combat this public health issue to criminalize the act? While it is undisputed that suicide prevention and deterrence is of the utmost importance, it is questionable how continued criminalization of attempt will achieve this. If anything, it may incentivize attempters to use more lethal means to ensure they do not survive and be faced with criminal charges. Even more, this may actually prevent people with suicidal ideation from getting help on their own volition for fear of criminal repercussions. As we become more aware of mental illness as a public health concern, it is important to explore even the most well-meaning efforts for prevention under a critical eye, and assess the consequences of dealing with mental illness through the criminal justice system.