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Baltimore’s ‘Downward Spiral’ Of Poverty, Disinvestment, And Policing

Above Photo: A man with his hands raised, surrendering to police at night. Getty Images.

A new report maps communities across Maryland.

It shows the relationship between incarceration and state disinvestment from education and public health.

The crisis of mass incarceration is about more than the conduct of police officers—it’s a question of public expenditures, and how pouring taxpayer money into incarceration at the expense of other, more humanizing ventures takes a toll on society at large. As public schools and public health programs across the nation grapple with a host of preventable problems arising from underinvestment, state and local governments across the nation spend over $200 billion each year on prisons, jails, and police. Now, a new report from the Justice Policy Institute, “The Right Investment 2.0”, takes a detailed look at the “downward spiral” low-income, predominately Black and Brown communities across Maryland are forced into by this imbalance in public expenditures.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart and Ryan King of the Justice Policy Institute join Rattling the Bars for a discussion on the report’s findings in Baltimore, and how an alternative model of community investment could combat poverty and crime without resorting to further policing.


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling The Bars, a show that amplifies the voices of people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and subjugated by offering solutions. Joining me today to talk about a report published by the Justice Policy Institute entitled The Right Investment, which examines how the lack of funding in neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of investment in housing, education, economic development, and public health devastate communities causing them into a downward spiral, is Shekhinah Braveheart, advocacy associate at the Justice Policy Institute, and Ryan King of Justice Policy Institute. Welcome to Rattling The Bars.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

Ryan King:  Thank you for having me.

Mansa Musa:  So let’s dive right into it. Justice Policy Institute published a report called The Right Investment 2.0: How Maryland Can Create Safe and Healthy Communities. Let’s start with you, Shekhinah. The reason why I’m asking this question is because there are a whole lot of reports that came out about poverty and impoverished situations; One of the most infamous reports that came out came out in 1970. The Coroner Report, I think it was, where it talked about poverty throughout the US. What is so unique about this report and all its implications is that, when you juxtapose it against other reports, it doesn’t replicate what they’re saying, it has some individuality to it.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  Yeah. The Right Investment 2.0, our newest report – And it’s an interactive report – Expands the scope of understanding by examining the impact of concentrated criminal legal involvement in specific neighborhoods coupled with the historic lack of investment in housing, education, economic development, public health, and how it creates this devastation and communities are locked into this downward spiral of disadvantage. And it’s historical, so this lack of investment and criminal legal involvement has this multi-generational impact.

The one thing about this report is that it offers some perspective on how long-term and strategic investments can uplift even the most challenging neighborhoods. The problem is not insurmountable, that’s the difference. We’re not defining the problem, we’re looking and offering some perspective on how long-term – And I stress long-term because there’s been long-term investment in policing and prosecutors in prisons, but there’s rarely long-term in the points and the areas that I just mentioned to you – Strategic investments can improve the conditions that we found ourselves in in these Baltimore communities.

Mansa Musa:  And, in terms of Baltimore, we recognize that – Me in particular, I’ve served 48 years in the prison system in Maryland. For 48 years, I served a percentage of it in the Maryland Penitentiary, I served at basically every institution with the exception of a few. But the majority of the population that was there when I first came in, was in Baltimore. I went into Maryland Penitentiary in 1973. The Maryland Penitentiary population in 1973, 75-80% of the population came out of Baltimore. In terms of the identity of Baltimore, Ryan, why did y’all dive down on Baltimore and not look across the board? Why did the report isolate itself to Baltimore in particular?

Ryan King:  Sure. There are a couple of things: The first is Baltimore now is about 10% of the state population, but comprises about one in three people that are in state prison. So, a big chunk of the people who are locked up in state prisons in the state of Maryland come from the city of Baltimore. It is the largest city in the state and it matters because it gives us an opportunity to dive deeply into specific neighborhoods.

There’s this question about how policy affects crime, who’s being incarcerated, and to some degree, what effects that’s having on communities. And in a place like Baltimore, you’re able to go from neighborhood to neighborhood and see stark differences in a whole host of different indicators. So, you’re able to look at one neighborhood right next to another neighborhood, or a short distance away, that has high rates of incarceration and is historically disadvantaged in education, housing, healthcare, and life expectancy. There are a myriad of different factors.

So Baltimore gives us an opportunity to look at all these things and what we see in the end picture is this is what structural racism looks like. These are neighborhoods that are historically disadvantaged on almost every single indicator you can find and oh, by the way, they also have the highest rates of incarceration. That’s not some coincidence. So to be able to dive into a city and then go neighborhood to neighborhood and be able to see that, wow, the neighborhoods that are having all of these problems also have these problems, it allows us to step back and begin to see that these things are all interrelated with one another.

This is not a criminal-legal issue, this is not a housing issue, it’s not an education issue, it’s how we invest in our communities. And as Shekhinah mentions, when we think about police, prosecutors, and prisons, those are investments. We should be thinking about those as investments. Those are dollars going into the system and not into the communities, and these outcomes and negative outcomes that we see are a direct reflection of that.

Mansa Musa:  I like the way you frame that because like I said earlier, there are other reports that came out. This is what I thought was unique about the report, was that it’s saying that if we invest in creating holistic environments for people, then we won’t have what we know to be the Maryland prison system. So, I like that concept of investment. But, let’s peel back some of the layers of this report. Because of the way the report was set up, you have categories and in each category, or each topic, y’all make an analysis of how the socioeconomic-political conditions and the lack of investment help aid and assist in penalizing poverty. Let’s start with the communities of disproportionate impact. Shekhinah, talk about that. What exactly does that mean to the layperson?

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  We looked at, I think it was 60 socioeconomic indicators from each of the Baltimore neighborhoods that allowed us to explore the relationship more deeply between criminal legal system involvement and a lack of neighborhood investment. So they’re broad. But, for instance, the same communities that are disadvantaged across the range of indicators are the ones with the highest incarceration; So they’re also the ones with a higher unemployment rate, the lowest household incomes, the lower educational attainment, higher rates of violence, higher rates of health issues, cancer, other forms of mortality, and lower life expectancy. These things parallel, sadly. The same socioeconomic factors and public health, across the board, would equal the indicators or the conditions that I just outlined.

Mansa Musa:  So, for example, Sandtown-Winchester versus Bolton Hill, or one of the more affluent areas in Baltimore. Eddie Conway and a few other people had what they called the Tubman House, and they had a community center in Sandtown at the Gilmour in the Gilmour Projects. We were down there last year doing an event and the community had been decimated. There weren’t a lot of kids there anymore. They had a lot of areas boarded up. But when I came out and I was in that area, I remember this area, only, the way I remember this area was that a lot of the guys that were locked up with me came out of the Gilmour Projects. So is this an indicator of what you’re talking about?

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  Yes, it was. Sandtown-Winchester, Greater Rosemont, Harlan Park, and Southwest Baltimore. We did the first TRI, The Right Investment, in 2015, and eight years later, those are still the top five most impacted communities. Eight years later. So, it hasn’t changed. If anything, it got worse.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, exactly. No, I agree. I did all that time in the prison system. When I came out, we were in Baltimore doing some work and this was the first time I had been out in the street and wasn’t handcuffed or riding in the van. And when I got out of the truck, I realized, I could walk up and down the street, in my mind. As I was walking up and down the street in the area I was in, I saw the devastation; I saw trash everywhere, boarded up houses every four houses. So how can people have a psyche and a sense of community? How can I have a sense of community if, on the block I live there are 20 houses on the block, 11 of them are boarded up, and I’m in between and people are throwing trash out? Ryan, talk about how this report focused on and looked at some of the community indicators and how they see these things came about.

Ryan King:  Sure. Let me share, while I have an opportunity here, to get a sense of the numbers we’re talking about. We’ve mentioned a few neighborhoods here; You mentioned Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park. To give your viewers a sense, there are a little under 11,000 people that live in that neighborhood. It’s 92.5% Black and there’s an incarceration rate of 2,562 per 100,000. So, 277 people in that neighborhood are incarcerated.

Now, I’m going to compare that to Greater Roland Park, Poplar Hill; 7200 people live there. It is 74% white, only 9% Black, and there’s one incarcerated person in the entire neighborhood. So, it gives you a little bit of a sense of what we’re talking about. Your viewers can also go to our website, Shekhinah mentioned it’s an interactive resource, so it allows you to go and float over each neighborhood and get a sense of what these numbers are. You’ll see time and time again, the neighborhoods that are 90%+ Black are the ones that have all of the worst socioeconomic indicators and the highest rates of incarceration.

So the community indicators, we took a look at things like unemployment, household income, and poverty levels but even things like Shekhinah had mentioned: health, elevated blood levels. We looked at educational attainment, mortality rates, truancy rates, and vacant-abandoned properties. As you can imagine, the same neighborhoods I mentioned like Sandtown-Winchester had the highest arrest data, the highest calls for 9-1-1 service, and the lowest rates of high school attainment. Then if you were to flip to Greater Roland Park, Poplar Hill, you’ll see the exact opposite. It’s neighborhood after neighborhood. And these are all in the same city, all in the same state, so you should not be seeing these differences. Again, that’s getting back to your first question about the importance of being able to see it under one government in the city of Baltimore. These differences tell you that this is more than just a location; These are the results of direct decisions about where to invest resources and what types of resources to invest in.

Mansa Musa:  I recall when I first came into the system in Maryland, in Baltimore in particular. I recall where we see the harbor is now, all the more affluent areas, they were like warehouses down there. The guys that were from Baltimore had all the high-rise projects they were in, all of them came out of those areas that they ultimately demolished. But that earned those areas – They later on became prime real estate. And now, what we see is the inner harbor and the money they invested in the harbor, you go a couple of miles left or a couple of miles right and you don’t see anything but blight. How do you reconcile that in the city of Baltimore, you have, up until O’Malley, a predominantly Black administration? How did y’all report deal with that? Was that a factor that y’all took into account in this report?

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  I’m a Baltimore resident. I would offer that there are levels of leadership. There is the governor over the state, then we have the various counties, and then we have the mayors of the city; It all comes down to where are they making the investments and what’s important to them. You talked about blight in these areas, between a few blocks of one another. I recently moved 10 blocks, all I moved was 10 blocks; Where I lived before, our streets were clean because there was a – What do you call it? Street sweeping truck? – Sanitation truck that came down our block twice a week and our block was clean. Now, 10 blocks over, trash is everywhere. But this is a city service that our tax dollars pay for. Now, who decides what neighborhoods, what streets get cleaned, and which ones do not? We would think that that would be a service that’s offered across the board, but it’s not.

So, it can be disheartening. It can be demoralizing for people who live in these communities where half the block is boarded up, there are burned-down buildings, busted windows, graffiti, all those things. It just creates that cycle. But decisions are made. So one of the great things about this report and others that are like it is that it shines a light on what the problems are. Then we can make recommendations as to how to fix them, starting at the highest of the highest levels, all the way down to community partners, those who are closest to the problem, who can probably identify where the investment priorities should be better than anybody else because they’re closest to it.

Mansa Musa:  Right. In terms of health and wellness, we recognize the high rate of mortality. We recognize, in terms of the psyche of the people, this is how they describe Baltimore in the criminal element; Baltimore is known as a heroin town. They sell heroin in Baltimore. The trauma that’s associated with this poverty, Ryan, talk about wellness and health and how that impacts the community overall.

Ryan King:  Absolutely. In a lot of these communities, we’ve been discussing the actual state of the buildings, the street access to healthy food which can be limited in a lot of these communities, and high rates of violence. Which, as you’re saying, it is traumatic to live in a neighborhood with high rates of violence; It is traumatic to live in a neighborhood with high rates of sickness, high mortality, and lack of access to all the support and services that an individual might need, that has access in other neighborhoods as close as 10 blocks away, as Shekhinah mentioned.

But the reality of living in those communities, what it is like, and what we hear consistently from people who have to live in those communities about the trauma of being subjected to the violence, the concern, and worry for family members and loved ones going to school, and going to work; That has a cumulative effect and when you have that concentrated to the degree that you do in the city of Baltimore and a lot of other cities across the country, it can be catastrophic for those neighborhoods. It requires the services and support for healing. We don’t have that in Baltimore; We don’t have that in a lot of places.

So when you ask people who live in a lot of these communities, what are they looking for? They’re not going to say, oh, we want 20% more people locked up. They want to feel safe, they want to be healthy, and they want strength and vibrancy in return to their community. That comes by investing in the people who live there and that is, unfortunately, what we haven’t seen. I think why we are where we are, in a lot of ways, is precisely because we’ve had this top-down approach. People from outside of Baltimore, for example, make decisions.

We already know former governor Hogan; Baltimore was a popular punching bag for him whenever he needed to score political points. That is often the case for folks outside of the city; People think they know what’s best as opposed to saying, let’s talk to the people who are in these neighborhoods and let’s listen to them, ask them what they need. Let’s listen to them and then invest in those things. That’s something that we haven’t tried and that’s what this report is attempting to try to draw attention to. This is not necessarily about police, prosecutors, and prisons. This is about how we invest in strength and strong communities and we’re not doing that in places like Baltimore.

Mansa Musa:  I want our audience to be mindful of this, that we’re talking about a community that was – I remember at one point in Baltimore when they used to have clean blocks. They used to, with the Air Force, they had a competition in Baltimore City, and everybody would take a lot of pride in it, in their neighborhoods, and would clean their block. The Air Force and other stores would sponsor a block party and the community was really vibrant. And now, we see what we see now, which leads me to the next element: The redlining. Shekhinah, talk about the redlining.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  Yeah. I’m going to defer to Ryan on the history of redlining in Maryland.

Mansa Musa:  Come on, Ryan.

Ryan King:  Sure, sure. I’ll talk about that, but I want to pick up on the comment that you mentioned before. What you’re describing is, in the academic literature they call it “collective efficacy.” Collective efficacy means that the people in the community can come together collectively and can effectuate change, right?

So you’re talking about communities that were strong. Why? Because the community members themselves took pride in them. And one of the things that we see is that – And there is research, quantitative research, to show that the more you have the system involved, more people being arrested, people coming in and out, incarcerated, being yanked on and off supervision and in out of custody, it destabilizes communities and it destroys those bonds.

So, in reality, by bringing in this external force of the police to bring in safety and not trusting the community members, you’re taking away the ability for the community members to do the things you were talking about; To collectively create their own community in the same way that a lot of other safe, healthy neighborhoods… Again, where a parent can see another kid down the street, a neighbor says something, and intervenes. That doesn’t happen in communities where you have such a high level of system involvement. So we see crime rates in the communities with the highest rates of incarceration are higher and the reason they’re higher is because a lot of what we know works to prevent crime has been destabilized.That’s a really important point that you raised and I wanted to place that in that broader context.

Mansa Musa:  That’s an accurate articulation. Come on. Redline.

Ryan King:  So as far as redline is concerned, you mentioned earlier regarding the Inner Harbor and the investment there, and it’s a perfect example. There were decisions made by federal agencies that determined the risk of loans being given to people to buy homes. If you were in a green neighborhood, literally circled with a green pen, that was considered low risk where banks would be loaning. There was yellow and then there was red. You can probably guess what red is: Red means these are high-risk loan areas. Those red lines were drawn in neighborhoods and communities that were historically majority Black.

And in doing so, what banks said at that time – And this is all post-World War II, the 1950s, the big baby boom when all of these neighborhoods and suburbs were growing up – Black families that were looking to also build and expand in the same way white families were, were blocked because banks were being told by the federal government, don’t loan to these individuals, loan to these individuals. If you loan to these individuals over here in the redlined area, there’s a higher risk of them not paying. And that obviously has had tremendous consequences for those communities.

If you look at the redlined neighborhoods in Baltimore, in the latter of the last 50 years of the 20th century and then coming into the beginning of the 21st century, unsurprisingly, the communities where there was investment, where people put down roots, built homes, and built families and are multi-generational, those communities are doing well; The ones that were redlined are not. It’s critically important. This is not by some coincidence; These were direct, deliberate decisions made. They were made primarily because of racism because these were neighborhoods that were predominantly Black. And here we are, 70-some years later, and we’re seeing all the consequences of that continue in a lot of these neighborhoods. So, we created these problems. But the good thing about that is we can fix them.

Mansa Musa:  Then we’re moving now to the next step. Come on, Shekhinah, what is the next step? Let me frame this: We recognize that you’re being penalized for poverty. This report recognized that there are impoverished communities and the people that are in impoverished communities, are going to be penalized, locked up, or subjugated to some type of social system that relegates them to being ineffective. In terms of the next step and investing in changing the narrative, talk about that.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  The bottom line to me, and based on this report, is investing in communities is the best public safety strategy. We had just had, a few weeks ago, the state governor and official press conference of the year, 2024, talking about his policy priorities, and a lot of it was around investments. I was happy to hear that he talked a bit about communities that have been traditionally and historically disadvantaged but I’m hoping that he really walks the walk in this situation. Because, this is what the problem is: They talk about the high crime rates, the violent crime, the gun violence, the youth violence, and the issues with juvenile justice. They want to roll back all the reforms that we fought so hard for over the past 5-10 years around criminal justice reform and juvenile justice reform, and they have it backward.

The investments should be on the front end, investing in these communities, and that is what builds public safety. You and Ryan talked a little bit about the closeness in communities, and people taking collective responsibility for what goes on in their communities. That’s a part of it but you need to establish sustainable funding sources to ensure support for both immediate and long-term investments.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And as we get ready to close out on it I think that we need to recognize that that really is the solution. Because this is what y’all are offering, y’all are saying 2.0, and we invest more monies into institutions that provide quality education, stop having food deserts, invest in communities, and put stores in their communities, and public housing. Because a person living in public housing doesn’t mean they want to live in a rat-infested environment or an environment where trash is not collected.

Ryan, talk about some of the solutions that y’all – Because y’all were saying look at private funding, track and monitor policies and program development to ensure that it’s improving the assets needed, and scaling to the community. Talk about some of these things as y’all outlined, how to make these investments, and more importantly, how to monitor and track them to ensure that we’re not giving lip service to a problem, or the money’s not going into the hands of poverty pimps.

Ryan King:  Right. The simplest solution is we need to listen to people who live in these neighborhoods. There are examples of this in other states, what is called “community public safety investments” where community leaders partner with elected officials, with practitioners in the local or state government, where they take some dollars and resources and invest them in certain interventions. They work with the community. The community themselves build a plan where they’ll have community leaders come and say, here are the things that we are looking for, here are five things that we need. And then you can have technical assistance; Individuals can come in and help work up a strategic plan, work up a budget. And, we’re not talking about… You think about the hundreds of millions of dollars that are spent every year on police and locking people up. For a small fraction of that, we can invest in these communities.

A lot of times, people talk about community centers; They want parks, they want better lighting on the streets, they want clean streets, and abandoned buildings to be cleaned up. These are little things that can be done that have a tremendous impact on public safety. And I want to pick up on the point that Shekhinah made: Community investment is our best, most effective public safety strategy. And, we have data to prove it. There has been research that has shown that, during declines in crime in the last 20-30 years, community-based organizations were a huge factor; neighborhoods that had more engaged, more involved community-based organizations, had better outcomes when it comes to crime.

This is not rocket science, this is basic stuff. If you invest in people, you have better outcomes. We know that. That’s why we have an educational system. That’s why we do this all across the country in a lot of different spheres. We have to have this orientation when we think about what we’re doing in our neighborhoods. And as I said earlier, it is an investment choice. A dollar in policing or a dollar to building a community center, pre-K, home visiting and family partnerships for young mothers, all of these factors out there that we’ve seen have effective outcomes long-term for individuals and reduce crime; That’s where our money needs to be going.

Mansa Musa:  All right. As we close out, both of y’all can answer this. How do you want me to receive this report as a layperson? I’m the person living in Sandtown-Winchester. I’m the grandmother that raised the whole neighborhood and I can’t move, but I’ve got historical data to say that I lived in a violent environment. How do you want me to receive this report? Start us out, Shekhinah.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  I would want that grandmother, that mother, and those people who live in the communities, to use this report or see it as a resource because it provides the information. All it’s doing is confirming what you have seen your entire life. We’ve given you the numbers, the statistics around the reality that you have lived. Now, you can take that information and go to your leaders, elected officials, on a community level, on a local level, on a city level, county level, and state level, and take that information to them and demand that – You put the investments. The money is here, you’re spending tax dollars on all this other stuff. The money’s there. We’re asking you to put it in these particular areas. And we can tell you from our firsthand experiences that this is the problem. And this is the solution.

Mansa Musa:  Right. I like that. Ryan?

Ryan King:  Yeah. I would add that elected officials in Baltimore and elected officials in Annapolis need to see these and say, what’s going on here? This is not defensible. We cannot be 2024 in the US, the wealthiest nation on earth, and have these neighborhoods that are failing on every single possible social indicator. It is unacceptable. And as a resident, we now have these data. We have known this stuff for a long time, but still, when you see these numbers, when you see it on a map and see how shocking it is, and to go and say, what are we going to do? Explain this to me, as your constituent, and what are we going to do to make this differently? How do we get resources into these communities? I would agree. I think that’s a resource to try to hold our elected officials and stakeholders accountable

Mansa Musa:  And Shekhinah tell our audience how they can get in touch with you and get a copy of the report.

T. Shekhinah Braveheart:  Yes. You can go to the Justice Policy Institute website,, and you can reach out to me directly at

Mansa Musa:  And Ryan, how can they connect with you?

Ryan King:  Same web address. My email address is R King, R-K-I-N-G, at

Mansa Musa:  There you have it, the real news. Thank you, Shekhinah Braveheart and Ryan King for joining me as we rattle the bars. We ask that you continue to support The Real News and Rattling The Bars. Because guess what? We really are the real news.

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