Six years ago, five-year-old Alex Malcolm was brutally beaten by his mother’s boyfriend in a park in Catford, south-east London. He died two days later of his injuries. His murderer, Marvyn Iheanacho, had been released from prison on licence just six months earlier, after serving a sentence for assaulting a woman.
Alex’s murder was preventable. Iheanacho was under the supervision of the probation service and should have been earmarked as high risk. Yet Alex’s mother, Liliya Breha, was unaware of his past convictions, his licence conditions and the fact that he posed a serious risk to women and children. An inquest jury later found that probation service failings contributed to Alex’s killing. His mother said at the time: “I would really like to say that Alex didn’t have to die for system failures to be identified… I now hope changes will be made.”
They have not been. Since then, there have been many murders and rapes carried out by men released from prison under the supervision of probation. Lisa Skidmore was raped and murdered by the convicted rapist Leroy Campbell in 2016 after he broke into her house. Quyen Ngoc Nguyen was raped and tortured, then burnt alive in a car in 2017 by two convicted murderers who met while serving life sentences in prison. Janet Scott was murdered in 2018 by a man previously convicted of murdering his wife. And the probation inspectorate last month published reports into failings associated with two horrific cases: the murder by Damien Bendall of his pregnant partner, Terri Harris, her two children and their friend in 2021, and of Zara Aleena by Jordan McSweeney in 2022. These are just the tip of the iceberg; the Labour party last week published figures showing that since 2010 an average of four murders and seven rapes a month have been committed by offenders on probation.
The vast majority of serious violence in our society is committed by men: 94% of murders and 98% of serious sexual assaults. So while the left and right variously emphasise the rehabilitation and punishment aspects of prison, its most critical function is public safety: keeping dangerous men out of society. Prison abolitionism is the ultimate luxury belief from those who don’t have to confront these risks.
However, prison can only achieve so much on this count. Not just because only some violent men are ever dealt justice; a tiny fraction of the number of rapes reported to police ever result in a conviction. Not just because the male prison estate itself is dilapidated and dangerous, impeding any theoretically rehabilitative effects it might have. But because many of these violent men pose a risk to society that extends long beyond their time in prison. Those convicted of the worst crimes have to go before the Parole Board before being released on licence – and its dreadful (now overturned) decision to release the prolific rapist John Worboys after serving just nine years shows it can get its assessments very wrong – but many are released automatically after serving half their sentence.
It is the probation service that has responsibility for supervising these men, monitoring risk and sending them back to prison if necessary for the rest of their sentence. The hope is that by the time it’s over, they are safe enough to be fully reintegrated into society.
However, the number of preventable violent assaults and murders committed by men on probation – so often against women and children – highlights that something is going seriously wrong. To some extent, the story is that of many other public services over the past decade: funding cuts have resulted in a more junior workforce trying to manage unsustainable workloads; it is telling that the newly qualified probation officer who was supervising Alex’s murderer admitted she was scared of him. This was all made worse by Chris Grayling’s disastrous part-privatisation of the probation service in 2014, which the Audit Commission found resulted in us all paying more for the privilege of living in a more dangerous society.
But read all the inquest findings and probation inspectorate reports and it’s clear that’s not all there is to it. Just like in every other part of the criminal justice system, there is a fatal minimisation of the risk that violent men pose to women and children. Monitoring resembles box-ticking rather than a dynamic assessment of risk. Is this offender complying with his licence conditions (and even on this basic test there have been serious failures)? Is he in a new relationship? Might he come into contact with children? It takes a sophisticated professional to see through the manipulation of a narcissistic male abuser in order to accurately assess those risks. One solicitor who has represented several clients harmed by probation failings told me it’s her perception that the probation service rates risk of violence to women and children very differently to other forms of violence such as terrorism.
This is the double injustice of the criminal justice system for women. Male violence against women and children is not accorded equal priority to other forms of violence. And although sex-based differences in patterns of violence mean it is vanishingly rare that a woman will genuinely be a danger to society, female offenders are treated as though they are violent men. Women’s prisons are crammed full of domestic abuse victims separated from their children, who have been convicted of petty crimes such as shoplifting, fraud and minor drug offences. Women who kill their abusive partners in self-defence or as a result of being under prolonged coercive control tend to get lengthy custodial sentences – and these have become longer over time, ironically as a result of policymakers wanting dangerous men to serve longer.
We know that experience of childhood trauma for boys is associated with a higher propensity to violence in adulthood, so any effort to reduce male violence must include more investment in children’s services. But there will always be some very violent men in society and it is naive to think they can all be rehabilitated with programmes such as anger management courses. They need to be monitored, managed and prevented from committing crimes against women and children. That’s why the failing probation service is one of the most important frontiers in the feminist fight to keep women safe from male violence.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist
• This article was amended on 5 February 2023. An earlier version misnamed Alex Malcolm as Alex Martin.
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