England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Zara Aleena’s murder highlights the deadly effects of cuts

By a Coventry Socialist Alternative member

After the recent revelation that the killer of Zara Aleena had been recently released from prison and wrongly assessed as being only a “medium” risk, a concerted attempt has been made to cast blame on individual probation officers. This prevents the Probation Service, the part-privatisation and splitting of probation and prison services under the Transforming Rehabilitation strategy, and indeed the justice system as a whole, from being scrutinised. 

Zara’s killer, Jordan McSweeney, has a long history of violence against women. But, in an unfortunately predictable way, information about his record of intimate partner violence was not considered as being ‘relevant’ to public safety. 

Sadly there is still an attitude from the justice system that separates violence carried out against an intimate partner – “domestic abuse” – from that carried out against others. But intimate partner abuse and assaults on strangers come from the same place of misogyny and contempt for women. The modus operandi and location may be different, but the hatred on display is the same. 

Probation Service failings

The Probation Service has attempted to shield itself from criticism by throwing individual officers under the bus. In reality, both the Probation Service itself but more importantly successive governments are to blame. Cuts in funding have seen significantly less probation officers than the Probation Service believes are needed – sometimes less than half. 

Several opportunities to recall McSweeney to jail were missed, due to delays in signing paperwork and understaffing. McSweeney was under the supervision of the private, for-profit London Community Rehabilitation Company. Had they assessed him as being high-risk, he would have been passed on to the Probation Service, meaning a loss of income for the London CRC. 

Sue Hobbs, co-author of Privatising Criminal Justice, argues

“The funding arrangements for the private, profit-oriented companies provided a monetary incentive for employees not to assess cases as high-risk, as this would result in them being passed on to the state-owned NPS, and a loss of income. Consequently, risk was routinely downgraded. Neoliberal ideologues in this government ignored warnings issued in 2015 and 2016 by the inspectorate that resettlement arrangements were not fit for purpose and pursued this flawed and ultimately doomed experiment to its predictable tragic end.”

We spoke to a serving Probation Officer and NAPO member regarding this case: 

“When something like this happens, staff are devastated. Our overwhelming priorities are the safety of the public, and reducing the risk of reoffending and harm posed by those under our supervision. Since the disastrous part-privatisation of Probation in 2014, and its even more disastrous ‘reunification’ under the bureaucratic mismanagement of the HM Prison and Probation Service, morale has plummeted. There are over 1,000 unfilled vacancies and the level of experience of qualified staff has fallen significantly. Since formal reunification in June 2021, four out of six probation areas inspected were marked ‘inadequate’ with the other two ‘requiring improvement’. If you want an explanation of how someone like McSweeney can be wrongly assessed as medium risk while in custody and placed on licence without sufficiently robust conditions, such as tagging or additional restrictions on his movement, you don’t have to look much beyond the catastrophic and willful destruction of the service.”=

“There were all sorts of perverse incentives in the split part-privatised service. In some areas, like Kent, Surrey and Sussex they actually did away with the existing risk assessment tool, which effectively de-skilled whole cohorts of staff, who were then trained to just push people on to money making programmes rather than look at public protection. Intimate partner violence was the biggest blind spot, as most of those who first come to the attention of the courts are convicted of criminal damage, drunk and disorderly, public order type offences which will categorise them as medium risk. But the job of a probation officer is to scratch the surface and think what lies behind this type of offending, and it’s often being in an abusive relationship.”

“We warned the Tories in 2014 that this would happen. Most serious further offences don’t come from those already assessed as high risk. So it is important that you have a quick escalation process when there are warning signs. Splitting the service in two was always going to lead to disaster.”  

The whole system is guilty

The Inspectorate of Probation has “raised significant concerns, finding that for domestic abuse perpetrators CRCs were “nowhere near effective enough in this critical area of work” and that planning for release of sex offenders was also “nowhere near good enough”. They “also found issues in local probation inspections, with a particular weakness around the domestic abuse checks we expect probation to make with the police about every case at both the pre-sentence stage and at the start of supervision. On average, we found that these weren’t happening in over one-third of the cases we inspected and in over 60 per cent in some of the worst performing regions.”

As socialists we do not look towards a system of incarceration and punishment as the answer to issues of oppression and violence. A society that breeds the violence embodied by men like Wayne Couzens, David Carrick, Nathan McSweeney and Damien Bendall is a society that needs fundamental change at its core. This also means breaking with the capitalist system which breeds the toxic attitudes and behavior that leads to these horrors. 

However, the cut-price system provided by the Tories has given us the worst of all possible worlds: an inherently violent and hateful society that breeds violent and hateful men, lengthy waits for trials and sentencing which make victims wait for any semblance of justice and give the state an extended opportunity to infringe on individuals’ freedom, and a Prison and Probation service that is understaffed and fails to either protect society from crime or rehabilitate those who commit it. 

We say:

  • Support and extend the strikes! Defend public sector pay and jobs to tackle the staffing crisis
  • For trade union action against cuts to all public services.
  • For socialist feminist struggle against all forms of misogyny and gender-based violence. 

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