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Treat suicide like a mental health issue, not a crime

In July 2018, a Massachusetts man in his 50s tried to kill himself in his backyard using his fiancee’s gun. He survived, but that was just the beginning of his ordeal. The local district attorney’s office decided to devote its resources to charging him with a litany of offenses, and spent the next year and a half fighting to keep him incarcerated, as documented in a recent article in The Appeal

This is far from an isolated example of a prosecutor’s response to a person’s attempt at suicide. But the public should expect far more empathy, understanding and compassion from a local office charged with protecting the entire community, even those suffering with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Prosecutors — the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system — get to decide what, if any, charges to pursue. And their positions on issues such as bail, pretrial detention and sentencing often frame a court’s decisions. Yet too often, prosecutors wield their discretion without any consideration to the negative effects that frequently flow from those decisions.

An inmate waits for treatment at a mental health treatment in California.

In Massachusetts, the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office decided to focus, in part, on this man’t criminal history, thereby ignoring the fact that he was in crisis. In the months before the incident, he had been unable to find employment. He said he decided to kill himself after ingesting a number of pills. He had not harmed or attempted to harm anyone but himself. He needed our help. Instead, he was sent to the local jail, perhaps the single worst place to send a person who has attempted suicide.

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