Probation officers failed and Zara Aleena was murdered. You need to know why

Look at Jordan McSweeney: he should not have been free to attack her. But also look at a collapsing system that puts all women at risk

Zara Aleena, a bright, vibrant law graduate, was walking home from a night out on 26 June when she was brutally murdered in a random, misogynistic and sexually motivated attack. Ever since that night, her friends and family have been tormented by the what-ifs – the painful sense that Aleena’s death was preventable.

Over the months I spent speaking with those who loved her for a recent story, this came up again and again. Today, a report by the inspectorate of probation confirms what her loved ones suspected: Jordan McSweeney, the man who murdered Aleena, would not have been free to attack her that night had it not been for a series of devastating state failings.

McSweeney had 28 convictions for 69 separate previous offences, including assaults on police and civilians, theft and racially aggravated harassment. He had a documented history of domestic violence against ex-partners, and in 2021 was subjected to a restraining order for an offence against a woman. He had served nine prison sentences, and notched up more than 100 incidents in prison, including violent and threatening behaviour towards prison guards and misogynistic language against female staff.

Yet despite all of this, when he was released on probation in June 2022, his risk level was classified as “medium”, because his offences, behaviour in prison and wider criminal history were looked at “in isolation”. This was just the beginning of a litany of failures by the probation service that left him free to murder Aleena.

Farah Naz, Zara Aleena’s aunt, in July 2022.
‘When a person is murdered, a family is murdered.’ Farah Naz, Zara Aleena’s aunt, in July 2022. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

When someone is released on probation, they are monitored so they can be recalled to prison if they breach the conditions of their release. Yet when McSweeney was released, on 17 June, the report shows, there was “no clarity” about where he would be living, and he was not monitored with an electronic tag.

After his release, he failed to turn up for a single meeting with a probation officer but the decision to recall him to prison was not made until 22 June. It took a further two days for the manager involved to sign the necessary paperwork. Once he was finally recalled on 24 June, police did not find him at the address he had given, and so he remained free. This was not classed as urgent because of that designated “medium” risk level.

Two days later, on 26 June, he spent the night stalking women on the streets of Ilford, east London, before attacking Zara Aleena with what the prosecution lawyer described as “almost unimaginable force”. He sexually assaulted her before stamping on her and leaving her for dead in a driveway. She died in hospital the next morning.

The report comes just a week after the probation inspectorate found that the supervision of Damien Bendall, who murdered three children and his pregnant partner, was of an “unacceptable standard”, and that “critical opportunities” had been missed.

Though these cases are particularly extreme, they are part of a wider pattern. In 2021, the inspectorate of probation found that checks on sexual offenders and domestic violence perpetrators going back into the community were “nowhere near effective enough”. These failings are indicative of a criminal justice system on its knees, and a probation service that is not fit for purpose.

The decimation of legal aid, underfunding of prisons and collapse in rape convictions are well documented. But the failed reform of the probation service has drawn less attention.

Initiated by Chris Grayling in 2013, the “transforming rehabilitation” programme partially privatised the probation service. The implementation was rushed. The private companies handed probation contracts had no particular expertise and did not invest properly in the services; staff were poorly trained to identify risk and overstretched. The average number of reoffences increased significantly.

In 2018, the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that “the quality of probation services being delivered was falling short of expectations” and quietly dropped some of these contracts. But the damage had been done. Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, told me: “We have probation officers who don’t understand what behaviour represents danger towards women, and a prison and parole system not effectively identifying risk.”

The service remains partly privatised, under-resourced, and understaffed. The last overall inspection of the probation service found there were 500 vacancies, with up to half of posts not filled in parts of London. These basic staff shortages have a devastating impact. The McSweeney report shows that his case was allocated to a probation officer just nine days before McSweeney left prison, meaning there was little time to plan his supervision.

The impact of poor training is also evident: one of the report’s recommendations is that efforts are made to ensure that all staff understand the difference between high and medium-risk offenders. To an outside eye, this appears to be an alarmingly basic requirement of the job.

“When a person is murdered, a family is murdered,” Aleena’s aunt, Farah Naz, told me last year. Aleena’s killing was avoidable. How many more women will it take before these systemic failures are addressed?

  • Samira Shackle is editor of the New Humanist and a regular contributor to the Guardian long read. She is the author of Karachi Vice

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Samira Shackle

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