Probation failings: who’s to blame?
Not the usual suspect, for once
A probation service is meant to protect the public and reduce reoffending by supervising offenders in the community and overseeing their rehabilitation. For the second week running, though, the probation inspectorate has uncovered failings that led to tragic consequences.
Last week, the justice minister Damian Hinds told us that the chief probation officer had apologised to the families of four people murdered by Damien Bendall in Derbyshire in 2021. A report by the chief inspector of probation Justin Russell found that the assessment and management of Bendall at each stage of the process “were of an unacceptable standard and fell far below what was required”. The Ministry of Justice published an “action plan” accepting the chief inspector’s recommendations.
Today, the minister himself has apologised “unreservedly” to the family of Zara Aleena for the “unacceptable failings” that led to her murder by Jordan McSweeney. In a televised sentencing hearing last month, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb said McSweeney would serve a minimum of 38 years for killing Aleena, 35, who was training to be a solicitor.
A new report by Russell says the assessment of the level of risk posed by McSweeney was inaccurate, given what was known. Had the correct assessment of risk of harm been undertaken, actions taken “could have been significantly different and potentially more urgent”.
Russell’s foreword says:
Following his release, and successive probation appointments being missed, the Probation Service failed to take prompt action in respect of recalling him to custody. Once that decision was made there were also delays in signing the paperwork to initiate the recall. Had this been undertaken sooner, opportunities for the police to locate and arrest Jordan McSweeney would have been maximised.
The report adds:
A critical omission in the case was the failure to apply sufficient professional curiosity and management oversight to ensure all available information was analysed to assess the risk posed by Jordan McSweeney. This review identifies that a significant amount of information became known regarding his circumstances confirming that he was in a relationship, had a stepchild and deteriorating family dynamics, particularly regarding his mother.
While information was recorded, there was little evidence of this being explored in any detail or informing assessments undertaken by agencies. This led to risk factors being assessed in isolation and not building a picture of the overall risk posed.
The inaccurate classification of risk was a key theme in our recent probation delivery unit inspections in London. Of the 137 medium risk of serious harm cases that were inspected across six local probation areas, seven per cent were deemed to have had their risk underestimated and should have been rated as high risk of serious harm rather than medium. Whilst this is only a sample, it does demonstrate the urgent need to ensure risk categorisations are accurate.
In a separate comment today, Russell said:
Probation staff involved were also experiencing unmanageable workloads made worse by high staff vacancy rates — something we have increasingly seen in our local inspections of services. Prison and probation services didn’t communicate effectively about McSweeney’s risks, leaving the Probation Service with an incomplete picture of someone who was likely to reoffend.
“We are taking immediate steps to address the serious issues raised by the Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases,” Hinds responded in a statement to reporters. “This includes mandatory training to improve risk assessments, implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders and we have taken disciplinary action where appropriate.” The Ministry of Justice published an action plan accepting the chief inspector’s recommendations.
You might have expected the latest apology to come from Dominic Raab rather than from one of his ministers. But I don’t think the justice secretary is entirely to blame for these failings — or, at least, not this justice secretary.
It was Chris Grayling, one of his predecessors, who split a probation system that had been organised on regional lines into a National Probation Service which would deal only with the most serious offenders and a series of community rehabilitation companies that were to be were paid by results. This all started in 2014.
Grayling’s reforms were heavily criticised and had to be reversed in 2018. David Gauke, that year’s justice secretary,terminated the community rehabilitation companies’ contracts 14 months early. A national Probation Service was reinstated in June 2021.
Although Grayling’s decision to part-privatise probation was rushed though without being tested, it would not be fair to make even him shoulder all the blame for its failings. When Grayling became justice secretary in 2012, he found his department’s budget had been heavily cut. That was because his predecessor Ken Clarke — now Lord Clarke of Nottingham — had enthusiastically agreed to a 22% reduction in spending after taking office in 2010.
As I wrote at the time, justice is not a service that could safely be handed over to the private sector. Clarke’s cuts to the core functions of criminal justice would be “at his peril”.
Except that it’s not usually the justice secretary who is in peril when a service such as probation is underfunded and then hollowed out. It’s the women and children who are savagely murdered because the Probation Service has failed in its duty to protect them.
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To be fair, he lasted until July 2019.