Military Waivers for Ex-Convicts Increase

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Army admitted about one-fourth more recruits last year with a record of legal problems ranging from felony convictions and serious misdemeanors to drug crimes and traffic offenses, as pressure to increase the size of U.S. ground forces led the military to grant more waivers for criminal conduct, according to new data released yesterday.

Such "conduct waivers" for Army recruits rose from 8,129 in fiscal 2006 to 10,258 in fiscal 2007. For Marine Corps recruits, they increased from 16,969 to 17,413.

In particular, the Army accepted more than double the number of applicants with convictions for felony crimes such as burglary, grand larceny and aggravated assault, rising from 249 to 511, while the corresponding number for the Marines increased by two-thirds, from 208 to 350. The vast majority of such convictions stem from juvenile offenses. Most involved theft, but a handful involved sexual assault and terrorist threats, and there were three cases of involuntary manslaughter.

"The significant increase in the recruitment of persons with criminal records is a result of the strain put on the military by the Iraq war," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which released the Pentagon data on felony waivers.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that the requirement to recruit more troops -- part of an effort to expand the Army and Marine Corps by tens of thousands by 2011 -- coupled with declining interest in military service in part caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has led to accepting more recruits with criminal backgrounds. By contrast, felony waivers in the Navy fell from 48 in 2006 to 42 last year and the Air Force had none in either year.

"We're digging deeper into the barrel than we were before" as a result of the difficult recruiting environment, said a Defense Department official, who requested anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak publicly. "Would I like to see the waivers lower? Yes."

Serious misdemeanors last year made up the largest single category of conduct waivers, which excuse crimes ranging from armed robbery to, in the case of the Marine Corps, one-time marijuana use.

Last year, the active-duty Army and Marine Corps brought in about 80,000 and 35,000 active-duty recruits, respectively; the number of 2007 recruits with felony conviction waivers amounted to less than 1 percent of the total soldiers and Marines recruited that year.

The defense official stressed that the standards for granting waivers are stringent -- requiring the approval of officers up to a two-star general -- and remain unchanged. "We're looking at more of these people" but with "the same level of scrutiny" as before, the official said.

In a letter sent yesterday to David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Waxman said he recognizes the importance of providing opportunities to rehabilitated criminals, a sentiment voiced by some senior Army officials.

"The thing is, you've got to give people an opportunity to serve," said Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, the Army's operations chief, when asked about the waivers yesterday. "We are growing the Army fast, there are some waivers . . . it hasn't alarmed us yet."

Recruits with criminal records have shown mixed performance in the military. A study last year by the Center for Naval Analyses tracked the attrition rates of Marines who enlisted with legal waivers between 2003 and 2005. It showed slightly higher boot camp attrition for those with serious or minor misdemeanor waivers, but somewhat lower attrition for those who committed felonies.

However, those with waivers were "quite a bit more likely" than other recruits to be separated from the service for misconduct within two years, and "recruits with felony waivers have the highest chance of a misconduct separation," it found.

"It is absolutely an important indicator," said Christine Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But," she added, "it won't mean 100 more Hadithas or cases of soldier abuse," referring to the November 2005 killing of as many as two dozen civilians by Marines in Haditha, Iraq.

Waivers granted for felonies and other crimes constitute the majority of all waivers -- about 60 percent for the Army, and 75 percent for the Marine Corps. But other exceptions are also increasing, suggesting that the Army and Marine Corps are bringing in lower-quality recruits, according to Pentagon data and experts.

Army and Marine Corps waivers for medical problems -- such as being overweight -- increased last year. Medical waivers constituted about 30 percent of all Army waivers last year and 25 percent of those for the Marine Corps. Also, in recent years the Army has been accepting more recruits who are not high school graduates.

"The numbers seem pretty clear to me that we are lowering standards, and it's difficult for me to see how that wouldn't have a negative impact on the quality of the force," Wormuth said.

Lengthy war-zone deployments are an important factor discouraging youths and their parents from considering military service, according to military officials and surveys. A decision this month to reduce active-duty Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 15 months to 12 months beginning in August will start a long process of alleviating some of that stress, Thurman said.

By late 2009, he estimated, the amount of time that active-duty soldiers will have at home between combat rotations will increase from a year to about 18 months, assuming no new demands are placed on the Army overseas.

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