Zara Aleena murder: Watchdog exposed string of probation failings

A watchdog laid bare a litany of failings that left a sexual predator free to stalk and kill Zara Aleena just days after his prison release.

The damning findings by the chief inspector of probation, published last year, set out a catalogue of errors by probation officers before Jordan McSweeney carried out the brutal attack on the aspiring lawyer.

McSweeney is serving a life sentence after admitting sexually assaulting and murdering the 35-year-old law graduate in Ilford, east London, in June 2022.

Zara Aleena death
Zara Aleena was murdered in Ilford, east London in June 2022 (Beresford Hodge/PA)

Then justice secretary Dominic Raab ordered a review of how probation staff supervised McSweeney – a career criminal who had been in and out of jail since he was 16 and had a history of violence – when it emerged he was freed from prison on licence nine days before the murder.

In that time, his licence had been revoked after he failed three times to meet probation officers – but he was not recalled to prison.

Publishing a report of his findings in January 2023, then chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said McSweeney was not treated as a high-risk offender when he should have been and chances to get him back behind bars sooner were missed.

Just one member of staff faced disciplinary action over the case. No-one was sacked, according to the watchdog’s report.

Mr Russell warned that until standards improve, it is “impossible to say that the public is being properly protected” from the dangers posed by criminals on probation, adding: “It could happen again.”

The way the Probation Service “assesses, manages and reviews risk of harm is not fit for purpose”, he said at the time.

More than 750 murders have reportedly been committed by criminals on probation since 2010.

Zara Aleena death
Jordan McSweeney, 29, pleaded guilty to the murder of Zara Aleena and was sentenced to life in prison (Metropolitan Police/PA)

Mr Russell made 10 recommendations for improvement as he called for an urgent review into how staff gauge the risk criminals pose to others.

The “clear lesson” from the case is that “overworked staff” do not have the time to go back over case files, he warned.

Setting out a string of key failures in the case, the watchdog found:

– The risk assessment was inaccurate

McSweeney should have been classed as high risk instead of medium.

This level should have been raised in February 2021 – more than a year before he killed Ms Aleena in London – when he was charged with grievous bodily harm and robbery.

In a court report in 2018, a probation officer previously involved with his case “recommended his risk level should be reviewed and potentially escalated should he commit another violent offence”, Mr Russell said, adding: “But in practice that didn’t happen.”

Dominic Raab
Then justice secretary Dominic Raab ordered a review of how probation staff supervised McSweeney (James Manning/PA)

Subsequent opportunities to review that risk level and correctly raise it were then missed.

Mr Russell also highlighted a “failure” to take into account McSweeney’s “concerning” and “violent” behaviour behind bars.

Over the course of 2021 and in the first half of 2022, there were 15 intelligence logs on McSweeney at two prisons but there was “no evidence” these were considered by probation officers.

The Prison Service was asked for information on his behaviour in custody but the information was “not supplied” to probation officers, Mr Russell said.

– Significant delays in allocating a probation officer

This should have happened once McSweeney was sentenced in April 2022 but one was only allocated nine days before his release in June.

This meant no proper risk assessment was carried out by the Probation Service before McSweeney was freed.

The time to plan his release was, as a result, “minimal and limited”, Mr Russell said. Probation officers did not have an address for McSweeney when he was released. Chances to impose tougher licence conditions, such as making him wear a GPS tag to track his movements, were also missed.

– Missed opportunities to recall him to prison quickly

After being released from prison on Friday June 17 2022, McSweeney failed to attend his initial probation appointment. When officers phoned his mother, she said he was at her home but too drunk to attend, Mr Russell said.

He missed two subsequent appointments, on Monday June 20 and Wednesday June 22.

Probation officers then started the process of recalling him to prison but crucial paperwork was not signed off until 48 hours later, on Friday June 24, because a line manager was juggling a heavy workload, Mr Russell said, missing the 24-hour target time frame.

McSweeney’s licence was revoked on the same day, making him liable for arrest by the police. But he went on to attack and kill Ms Aleena 36 hours later.

The watchdog’s inspectors concluded McSweeney should have been recalled two days earlier, as soon as he missed the first appointment, which would have given police more time to track him down.