WASHINGTON – More recruits with criminal records, including felony convictions, are being allowed to join the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, as the armed services cope with a dwindling pool of volunteers during wartime.
The military routinely grants waivers to take in recruits who have criminal records, medical problems or low aptitude scores that would otherwise disqualify them from service. Most are moral waivers, which include some felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic and drug offenses.
Defense Department statistics show that the number of Army and Marine recruits needing waivers for felonies and serious misdemeanors, including minor drug offenses, has grown since 2003. Some recruits may get more than one waiver.
The Army granted more than double the number of waivers for felonies and misdemeanors in 2006 than in 2003.
The number of felony waivers granted by the Army grew from 411 in 2003 to 901 in 2006, according to the Pentagon, or about one in 10 of the moral waivers approved that year. Other misdemeanors — from petty theft or writing a bad check to some assaults — jumped from about 2,700 to more than 6,000 in 2006, representing more than three-quarters of moral waivers granted by the Army.
Army and Defense Department officials defended the waiver program as a way to admit young people who had made a mistake but overcome past behavior.
Lawmakers and other observers said they were concerned that the struggle to fill military ranks in this time of war had caused standards to fall.
"Our armed forces are under incredible strain, and the only way that they can fill their recruiting quotas is by lowering their standards," said Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been working to get additional data from the Pentagon. "By lowering standards, we are endangering the rest of our armed forces and sending the wrong message to potential recruits across the country."
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Tuesday he was concerned that the Pentagon data differed from Army numbers, but said that "anything that is considered a risk or a serious infraction of the law is given the highest level of review."
"Our goal is to make certain that we recruit quality young men and women who can keep America defended against its enemies," Boyce said.
The data was obtained through a federal information request and released by the California-based Michael D. Palm Center, a think tank that studies military issues.
"The fact that the military has allowed more than 100,000 people with such troubled pasts to join its ranks over the past three years illustrates the problem we're having meeting our military needs in this time of war," said Aaron Belkin, director of the center.
The military also does not have programs that help convicted felons adjust to military life, according to a new study commissioned by the center, Belkin said.
As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have dragged on, the military also has relaxed some standards in order to meet recruitment demands. The Army, for example, increased its age limit for recruits from 35 to 42, and is accepting more people with lower scores on a standardized aptitude test.
The Pentagon said in its report that "the waiver process recognizes that some young people have made mistakes, have overcome their past behavior, and have clearly demonstrated the potential for being productive, law-abiding citizens and members of the military."
The military in its report divides moral waivers into six categories: felonies, serious and minor non-traffic offenses, serious and minor traffic offenses and drug offenses.
According to the Pentagon, nearly a quarter of military recruits in 2006 needed some type of waiver, up from 20 percent in 2003. Roughly 30,000 moral waivers were approved each year between 2003 and 2006.
About one in five Army recruits needed a waiver in 2006, up from 12.7 percent in 2003.
More than half of the Marine recruits needed a waiver in 2006, a bit higher than in 2003, and largely due to their more strict drug requirements.
About 18 percent of Navy recruits required a waiver, up slightly from 2003.
Just 8 percent of Air Force recruits had waivers, down a bit from 2003.