In 2009, the Montana Legislature shelved a bill that would have created a pilot suicide prevention program in jails across the state. The Linda Wilson Memorial Jail Suicide Prevention Act, named for a woman who hanged herself in 2007 with a telephone cord from her Miles City jail cell, would have cost state taxpayers $264,000 for the first year and, state budget crunchers say, less in subsequent ones.
The bill would have provided for a 24-7 "triage" line, enabling jail staffers and inmates to call mental health professionals during times of crises. In Kentucky, a similar program reduced jail suicides by 80 percent.
Montana legislators cited budget constraints when tabling the bill. According to the Montana Board of Crime Control, 12 inmates have committed suicide in county and city detention facilities across Montana since then.
In advance of the 2013 legislative session, elected representatives are again hashing out whether getting a suicide prevention bill through the lawmaking body is a priority. The Montana Legislature's Interim Law and Justice Committee last week deliberated the merits of a program similar to the one proposed in 2009. It would create a 24-7 phone triage line and create a comprehensive suicide prevention protocol for city and county facilities.
Law and Justice interim committee member and state Democratic lawmaker Margaret MacDonald said during the meeting that implementing such a program seems a no-brainer. "These are largely preventable."
MacDonald says the program would cost taxpayers roughly half a cent each year—during a time when Montana's sitting on an estimated $400 million surplus.
Some committee members, however, including Republican Rep. Michael More, of Gallatin Gateway, cautioned that amid the "fury" and the "furor" of crafting a budget, it could be tough to persuade fiscally conservative legislators to get on board.
Committee Chair Jim Shockley, a Republican senator from Ravalli County, said he liked the idea of having greater mental health services in jails. But, "How are we going to get the money?"
Money is always going to be an issue. But, as MacDonald says, it's important for lawmakers to look past the bottom line and to their humanity. Or, to put it another way, how many more Montanans must die in custody by their own hands before the state raises this small ante?