Zara Aleena murder: Probation Service mistakes outlined in report

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A man with a history of violence was at liberty to sexually assault and murder a law graduate after mistakes were made by probation staff, a report has found.

Jordan McSweeney, 29, attacked Zara Aleena in June 2022, nine days after his release on licence from prison.

He had been wrongly assessed as “medium risk” by staff who were under “mounting pressure” at the time, Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell found.

“Immediate steps” to address the issues are being taken, the government said.

In December, McSweeney was given a minimum term of 38 years by a judge at the Old Bailey for the “terrifying and ruthless” attack on 35-year-old Ms Aleena.

He had admitted savagely kicking and stamping on the trainee solicitor, who was walking home in Ilford in east London when she was assaulted. McSweeney had 28 previous convictions for 69 separate offences, dating back 17 years, Mr Russell’s report said.

The prolific thief, from Dagenham in east London, was described in court as a “damaged person” who had experienced a troubled childhood during which domestic violence was the “norm”. He was taken into care and expelled from school; he sold drugs and took part in bare-knuckle fights for money.

McSweeney had served nine prison terms for crimes including burglary, theft and possession of an offensive weapon prior to the attack on Ms Aleena, in the early hours of 26 June. He also had a documented history of violence towards ex-partners.

Mr Russell’s report described how his case was allocated to a probation officer only nine days before he left prison, meaning there was little time for planning his supervision.

Information about some of McSweeney’s violent behaviour, including the details of a restraining order taken out against him in 2021, was not part of his probation assessment, the report found. Where he was going to stay was not known at the point of his release, and he was not monitored with an electronic tag.

‘Unmanageable workloads’

McSweeney’s licence was soon revoked because of his failure to attend any meetings with probation officers, however it was not decided he should be recalled to prison until 24 June, the report said. He murdered Ms Aleena two days later. One worker faced disciplinary action over the case.

“Once that decision (to recall McSweeney) had been made, there were also delays in signing the necessary paperwork to initiate the recall. Had this been done sooner, opportunities for the police to locate and arrest McSweeney would have been maximised,” the report said.

McSweeney had been assessed as medium risk because his offences, his behaviour in prison and his criminal history were “reviewed in isolation”, Mr Russell’s report found. It said that if the Probation Service had correctly assigned McSweeney as high risk, more urgent action may have been taken after his release.

“The Probation Service failed to do so, and he was free to commit this most heinous crime on an innocent young woman,” Mr Russell said.

“Our independent review brings into sharp focus the consequences of these missed opportunities and reveals a Probation Service in London under the mounting pressure of heavy workloads and high vacancy rates.”

The Ministry of Justice said less than 0.5% of the 200,000-plus offenders subject to probation supervision every year were convicted of another serious offence.

Mr Russell said London had a high Probation Service vacancy rate, of about 500 people, when Ms Aleena was murdered in June, and the Barking, Dagenham and Havering probation unit responsible for McSweeney’s supervision was operating at a capacity of 64% and therefore had “unmanageable workloads”.

The problem is “systemic” across England and Wales, with 10 out of 17 areas being rated as inadequate, mainly due to concerns over risk management and planning, Mr Russell’s report found.

It makes nine recommendations, among them a call for an urgent senior-led review to ensure all staff understand the difference between high and medium-risk offenders.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the probation and family court union Napo, said he would not blame staff who were “doing their best trying to hold the service together”.

“I think the blame for this systemic failure lies firmly at the hands of the secretary of state for justice, and I want that secretary of state to meet with me, and practitioners, so they can get an idea of how hard it is at the front line.”

Prisons and Probation Minister Damian Hinds said the government was taking “immediate steps to address the serious issues raised” by the McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases.

Mr Hinds said this involved the instigation of mandatory training to improve risk assessments and the implementation of new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders.

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