Hundreds of murders have been committed by dangerous criminals on probation who weren't being monitored properly after being released from prison in England and Wales.
Campaigners have warned that the Conservative government's attempts to run the probation service "on the cheap" have put the public at risk in recent years after disastrous reforms that led to private companies failing to check up on prisoners properly. In some instances, criminals were being monitored with a monthly phone call.
On Thursday, a killer was sentenced to life after he launched a random stabbing spree in September 2020, just four months after he had been released from prison.
Jacob Billington, 23, was killed, and seven were others injured by Zephaniah McLeod, 29.
A serious case review into McLeod's contact with agencies who were supposed to be monitoring him will be published next year.
McLeod was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2012. He was seen by community mental health workers just three days before his attack, telling them he was hearing “distressing voices”.
However he refused to attend a psychiatric appointment.
Mr Billington's mother told reporters that the authorities responsible for McLeod have “many questions to answer”.
Experts have warned that lives will still be in danger unless the government learns from these catastrophic errors.
Ministry of Justice data analysed by Yahoo News UK shows that 348 people were convicted of murder while under the supervision of probation services from March 2015 to March 2020.
This means that during this time period, roughly one in five murders was committed by someone on probation.
The figures form part of the government's recording of serious further offences (SFOs), which refer to specific violent and sexual crimes – including murder and rape – committed by former inmates on probation.
In 2019/2020, the most recent year for which data is available, a total of 271 people were convicted of SFOs, 74 of which were murder convictions.
The Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell warned that the public is being placed at risk from violent and sexual offenders.
He told Yahoo News UK: “A very small percentage – around 0.2% – of people on probation commit serious further offences while under supervision. These include violent and sexual offences, such as murder.
“Our inspection last year found more needs to be done to strike a balance between protecting the public and supporting people to move towards crime-free lives.
“When serious further offences occur, the Probation Service must make clear judgements as to whether all reasonable steps were taken to manage the risk of serious harm.
"They also need to identify national learning trends and use these to drive changes to probation policies and guidance.
"Until this work is done, the government and the Probation Service is not doing enough to learn from past mistakes.”
In 2016, nurse Lisa Skidmore was raped and murdered by an ex-inmate released on licence.
Leroy Campbell, who had been sentenced to life in prison for a series of serious and violent sexual offences, was approved for release by the Parole Board.
While he was living in the community in unsupervised housing, he told the probation service that he was feeling vulnerable and isolated, was thinking about reoffending, and had started "noticing open windows".
No steps were taken to recall Campbell to custody.
A few weeks later, he killed Ms Skidmore in her own home. Campbell also attempted to murder her elderly mother, and then set fire to the property. Mrs Skidmore survived the attack in her daughter's property.
A 2018 report found that Campbell's supervision by the probation service had been "inadequate in several crucial respects".
The report said: "As a result, Lisa Skidmore, other women and the wider public were put at risk unduly, with grave consequences."
Convicted killer Simon Mellors murdered his ex-girlfriend in 2018 while released from prison on licence.
Mellors stabbed Janet Scott, 51, before mounting the pavement at speed in his car and smashing her against a wall.
The 56-year-old had previously been convicted of murder in 1999 after strangling his then partner, Pearl Black, with electrical ties from his garden shed following a brutal hammer attack.
Mellors was released on licence in 2014. He had a short relationship with Ms Scott while she was separated from her partner.
Watch: Double child killer Colin Pitchfork released from prison
He killed himself while being held in HMP Manchester before he could stand trial for Ms Scott's murder.
Harriet Wistrich, solicitor and director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: "Over the last five years, part of the problem has been a consequence of the Conservative government’s disastrous 'Transforming Rehabilitation' programme which attempted to privatise – on the cheap – the probation service, and which led to the loss of skilled probation workers and those with expertise in managing risk being massively overloaded.
"Probation services and parole boards need to be adequately resourced to ensure offenders who may pose a risk are effectively supervised.
"However, even when properly resourced, identifying and managing risk is a skilled enterprise and those who do it need to understand the nature of male violence and what the key risk signifiers are, so that the escalation of dangerousness can be stopped in its tracks."
Correcting the damage
In 2020, then Justice Secretary Robert Buckland announced that the probation service would be brought back under public ownership and control.
The move marked a screeching U-turn over a derided shake-up brought about by his predecessor, Chris Grayling.
In 2014, Grayling introduced the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, putting part of the service into the hands of private providers.
A series of reports by watchdogs, inspectors and committees concluded that the policy was a disaster.
A 2017 HM Inspectorate of Probation report said that private companies were failing to properly monitor prisoners, sometimes using monthly phone calls to check up on prisoners.
The system was found to put the public at risk.
The National Audit Office found in 2019 that the part-privatisation of probation services had cost taxpayers an extra £467m.
Announcing the U-turn in parliament, Buckland said: “We can reassure the judiciary and the public that whatever lies ahead, offenders serving community sentences will be punished and make their reparation to society and that programmes to address their behaviour will be delivered.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman told Yahoo News UK: “Fewer than 0.5% of offenders supervised by the Probation Service go on to commit serious further offences and we undertake Serious Case Reviews to ensure lessons are learned.
“Earlier this year we reunified the Probation Service, and last month’s Spending Review confirmed an extra £550million to protect the public and rehabilitate offenders.”