The Ferguson riots: economics and bias in the American justice system

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri continue to dominate headlines around the world. Even the brutal dictatorship of North Korea has got in on the act, accusing the United States of being a ‘human rights tundra’. The disturbances follow a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer for the fatal shooting of a black teenager, allegedly because of racial bias.
Liberal opinion everywhere appears to regard the American judicial system as being irredeemably racially biased. Amnesty International, for example, proclaimed that ‘African Americans are disproportionately represented among people condemned to death in the USA. While they make up 12 percent of the national population, they account for more than 40 percent of the country’s current death row inmates, and one in three of those executed since 1977’. But simple declarations such as this are no real use as evidence of bias. Violent crime rates are much higher amongst ethnic minorities than they are amongst whites. So the former will be convicted more frequently than the latter.

A sophisticated analysis of the decisions of courts in the US is published in the latest issue of the American Economic Review. Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Elena La Ferrara of the Universita Bocconi in Milan examine sentences of capital punishment for evidence either that blacks convicted of murder are more likely to be sentenced to death or, importantly, that such punishment is more likely if the victim is white. They use a very neat approach, which takes advantage of the appeal system in America. Capital sentences imposed by the initial court are automatically appealed, first to the state court and then, if they are upheld, in a federal habeas corpus petition. If the initial court is unbiased, Alesina and La Ferrara argue, the reversal rate of sentences by the upper courts should be the same, regardless of the race of the accused or the victim.

The overall finding is that there is indeed evidence which is consistent with racial prejudice. The lower courts do give more death sentences which are then reversed in cases which involve a minority defendant killing white victims. The reversal rates are 3 per cent higher for minority defendants at the first level of appeal than they are for whites, and 9 per cent at the highest level. These are not dramatic, but they do indicate some bias exists. The authors carry out extensive checks to make sure that their results are valid. An interesting one is that it does not matter whether the judge in the higher court has a Democrat or Republican background.

The most intriguing aspect is that the bias is entirely confined to the Southern states. Cultural attitudes can be remarkably persistent. It is 150 years since Americans fought each other over slavery, but the echo of the differences can still just be heard today. In the rest of the United States, justice does indeed appear to blind.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Tuesday 2nd December

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.