Probation service and ministers have ‘blood on hands’, say Zara Aleena’s family

<span>Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA</span>
Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA

Ministers and the probation service have been accused of having “blood on their hands” after a watchdog uncovered failings which left a violent, woman-hating racist free to murder the law graduate Zara Aleena.

Jordan McSweeney should have been seen by probation officers as a high-risk offender with a long history of misogynistic and racially aggravated incidents and recalled to prison after missing appointments, the chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, said.

Instead, he was incorrectly assessed as being of “medium risk” and remained free to attack Aleena, a damning report has disclosed. McSweeney’s past offences, his behaviour in prison and his criminal history had been reviewed in isolation and not been reviewed as part of a pattern, it has found.

In an indication of government failings, Russell said the probation staff involved were also experiencing unmanageable workloads made worse by high staff vacancy rates – “something we have increasingly seen in our local inspections of services”.

The findings have been released a month after McSweeney, 29, was handed a life sentence after admitting carrying out a “terrifying and ruthless” attack on Aleena in Ilford, east London.

Farah Naz, Aleena’s aunt, who has acted as the family spokesperson since the murder in June, said Aleena would still be alive had the probation service not made so many errors.

“The probation service has a big part to play in Zara’s murder, they have a responsibility here.

“Government bears responsibility too, it is not just the probation service. They have blood on their hands,” she said.

Naz said the address McSweeney gave when released from prison was not correct, so even the weak conditions he was supposed to obey were effectively meaningless. “Prisoners know they can’t be found if they breach their conditions,” she said.

The Ministry of Justice ordered a review of how probation staff had supervised McSweeney when it emerged he had been freed from prison on licence nine days before the murder.

His licence had been revoked after he failed to attend any meetings with probation officers, but he had not been recalled to prison.

Russell said: “Jordan McSweeney should have been considered a ‘high risk of serious harm’ offender. If he had, more urgent action would have been taken to recall him to prison after he missed his supervision appointments on release from custody.

“The probation service failed to do so, and he was free to commit this most heinous crime on an innocent young woman.”

McSweeney had 28 previous convictions for 69 separate offences dating back 17 years, including burglary, theft of a vehicle, criminal damage, assaulting police officers and a racially aggravated public order offence. He also had a history of violence towards ex-partners and was given a restraining order for an offence against a woman in 2021.

Russell said McSweeney should have been classed as a “high risk of serious harm” on release from prison but this was not passed on to the probation service.

“Following his release from prison and successive appointments being missed, the probation service failed to take prompt action to recall him to custody. Once that decision 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,” Russell said.

The report found that when McSweeney was released on 17 June, there was “no clarity” on where he would stay, and he failed to attend an initial appointment with a probation officer on that day.

Over the next few days, there were several missed opportunities to recall him, before an order to recall him to custody was finally initiated on 22 June. However, the probation manager involved did not sign off the recall until 24 June.

Two days later, and before he could be taken into custody, McSweeney murdered Aleena as she walked home after a night out. He had already targeted at least five other women.

Aleena, 35, who was training to be a solicitor, was found with severe head injuries and struggling to breathe. She later died in hospital.

Making 10 recommendations, the watchdog called for an urgent review of how probation staff gauge the risk criminals pose to others, adding that it is “crucial” for the probation service to tackle the “wider systemic” problems.

The report comes just a week after the watchdog exposed failings by the probation service before Damien Bendall murdered three children and his pregnant partner. Russell said the organisation’s assessment and supervision of Bendall was of an “unacceptable standard” at every stage and “critical opportunities” to correct errors were missed.

Several similar concerns were raised before, and some of the recommendations mirror those made after the Joseph McCann case, the McSweeney report said.

McCann, a serial rapist, carried out a series of sex attacks after being freed from prison after “major failings” among an “unstable” team of inexperienced probation staff, a report published in June 2020 concluded.

Responding to the McSweeney report, the prisons and probation minister, Damian Hinds, apologised unreservedly to Aleena’s family for the “unacceptable failings”.

“We are taking immediate steps to address the serious issues raised by the Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases. This includes mandatory training to improve risk assessments, implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders, and we have taken disciplinary action where appropriate,” he said.