A person is killed every three days on average by an offender on probation in England and Wales, The Independent can reveal, as the crisis in public protection deepens.
The litany of errors leading up to the murder of Zara Aleena by serial offender Jordan McSweeney has shone a spotlight on dangerous gaps in the monitoring of people leaving prison.
McSweeney had been released just nine days before brutally attacking and killing the aspiring lawyer as she walked home in east London, and a review by the probation watchdog warned that the horrific case was “symptomatic of much broader issues”.
Figures published by HM Inspectorate of Probation show that 622 reviews were triggered over alleged murders by reoffenders over the six years to 2020.
Some culprits were ultimately acquitted, or convicted of lesser crimes such as manslaughter, while the Ministry of Justice recorded 415 cases of people being found guilty of a “serious further offence of murder” between 2014-15 and 2019-20.
More recent figures have not yet been published, but will include the murder of Aleena and the 2021 Killamarsh killings, which saw violent offender Damien Bendall murder three children and his pregnant partner.
He warned that until standards improve, it is “impossible to say that the public is being properly protected”, adding: “It could happen again.”
Mr Russell said heavy workloads and high vacancy rates are making it impossible to properly monitor released prisoners, with the unit overseeing Aleena’s killer having had less than two-thirds of the required staff last year.
Many probation workers blame the chaos in staff recruitment and retention on underinvestment by the government, following the botched part-privatisation of the probation service in 2014 and the decision to renationalise it five years later.
Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the Napo probation union, said staff “welcomed the return of probation back to state control but didn’t see the investment” needed.
He told The Independent that although work to recruit more staff is under way, many are “packing it in” within just weeks of arrival because of high workloads and the harrowing demands of the job.
“The system needs sharpening. To say we’re giving staff training is all well and good, but [not] if they’ve got 75 cases on their books and they barely have time to go to the toilet,” Mr Lawrence added.
“The government has failed to invest properly in the systems we need to ensure that mistakes like [that which led to Aleena’s murder] don’t happen again ... our members are working hard to protect the public.”
He called for improvements in the way prisons provide information to probation workers on people coming up for release, and for police to act faster to arrest people who have broken licence conditions so they can be sent back to jail.
Mr Lawrence will put his demands to the prisons and probation minister, Damian Hinds, at a meeting on Monday.
“The government needs to repair this service to the level it was at before it was part-privatised,” he said. “I’m not saying mistakes didn’t happen, but nothing like the scale of what’s been seen since.”
The Ministry of Justice said it had recruited 2,500 trainee probation officers over the past two years and would bring in another 500 by the end of March.
A spokesperson added: “Serious further offences are incredibly rare, and the justice secretary has set out plans to overhaul the parole process and ensure prisoners who still pose a risk are kept behind bars.
“We are investing £155m more into probation to deliver more robust supervision, reduce caseloads, and recruit thousands more staff to keep the public safe.”