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Probation service failings

Probation service failings


Jordan McSweeney should have been assessed as a high-risk offender, but he wasn’t. Days after being released from prison he murdered Zara Aleena. What does his case tell us about failings in the probation service?

“CCTV footage taken close to Aleena’s home in east London shows McSweeney stalking a number of women that night. The 35-year-old didn’t stand a chance.”

ITV News

In June last year, Jordan McSweeney attacked and murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home in Ilford, east London.

Just nine days earlier, he’d been released on licence from prison after serving a portion of a sentence for a burglary offence. 

But his rap sheet was extensive.

Jordan McSweeney is a career criminal – with 28 previous convictions for 69 separate offences to his name, some dating back to 2006.

“They range from racially motivated offences, driving offences, and an assault on police, to battery and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.”

Jordan McSweeney’s sentencing, Sky News

He had a documented history of violence towards ex-partners too. 

Despite his history of violent behaviour, he was assessed as “medium risk” by probation staff. 

That meant he wasn’t monitored as closely as a high risk offender… but when he failed to turn up to three appointments with probation officers, his licence was revoked.

“Probation workers signed a recall report… outside the 24-hour advised turnaround. This means police officers had the power to arrest him and return him to custody.”

5 News

Only Jordan McSweeney still wasn’t recalled to prison…

“Failings in the way McSweeney was monitored left him able to stalk and kill her. Today her family condemned the series of mistakes made.”

5 News

Here’s Zara Aleena’s aunt, Farah Naz, speaking to 5 News…

“Our streets are not safe. Probation work has to be tight, has to be high quality, because the risks, the stake is high. The stake is lives. Zara’s life was taken and probation have blood on their hands.”

Farah Naz, Zara Aleena’s aunt, speaking to 5 News

So, what does Jordan McSweeney’s case tell us about failings in the probation service?


“I think public confidence will understandably be hit when they hear cases like this…”

Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation

This is Justin Russell, the Chief Inspector of Probation…

“There are broader systemic issues with probation at the moment. Huge vacancy levels, particularly in London and real problems around how they assess risks of harm and manage risks of harm and we’re finding this across the whole of England and Wales so this wasn’t an isolated case of things going wrong.”

Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation

A 2019 study found that the privatisation of the probation service had caused real issues.

After it was split from the prison service in 2014, around 70 per cent of probation work was outsourced to private companies and charities, which managed low and medium risk offenders.

More paperwork and higher workloads led to staff going on strike.

And the change led to lots of employees resigning. 

By 2020, that change was reversed and probation services were fully restored to public ownership and control… but the service still hasn’t recovered. 

Today there are 18,366 full-time probation officers in England and Wales. That’s more than double the number in 2015. But in the year to September 2022, 2,100 staff left the service.

A report by the Inspectorate of Probation found that more experienced staff with five to nine years’ service were the most likely to leave.  

All of which leads to people like Jordan McSweeney falling through the cracks.

A report by the Inspectorate of Probation found that more experienced staff with five to nine years’ service were the most likely to leave.  

All of which leads to people like Jordan McSweeney falling through the cracks…


“This is a service that is desperately understaffed and overworked… now that means of course mistakes are going to happen. And actually when the inspectorate went back and looked at the probation service in London it found that actually seven per cent of the cases where offenders were being classed as medium risk should actually have been classed as high risk so looked after a lot more closely.

ITV News

Jordan McSweeney was one of the seven per cent of wrongly assessed offenders.

Here’s Justin Russell again…

“I have serious questions about whether the probation services systems for assessing and managing risk are fit for purpose. We’re repeatedly making recommendations about weaknesses.”

Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation

A report by the Chief Inspector found Jordan McSweeney should have been classed as “high risk”, and that information about some of his violent behaviour wasn’t taken into account when an assessment was made. That’s despite him being handed a restraining order for an offence against one woman just a year earlier.  

The report continues that staff were under “mounting pressure” at the time. “Significant” delays meant probation staff were only allocated his case nine days before he was let out into the community.  

And Jordan McSweeney isn’t an isolated example. 

In 2020 to 2021 the Parole Board’s annual report reveals that 27 offenders went on to be charged with a serious further offence following release.

It’s clear that years of funding cuts and the renationalisation of probation services has led to systemic problems.  

The most clear of which is the staffing shortage. There are currently nearly 2,000 officer vacancies, with the most in London.

Filling those gaps will at least help relieve the pressure on overworked staff.

This episode was written by Imy Harper.