The first federal indictments for evading draft registration are expected next week, with anti-draft protests planned for the following day in more than 100 cities around the country.
John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department, confirmed that a "handful" of indictments is expected by the end of June. He added that various U.S. attorneys are still not ready to go forward on indictments in most of the 160 cases referred by the Selective Service for prosecution.
Another 65 cases referred by the Selective Service have been dropped, he said, because the violators turned out to be women, non-citizens or men outside the covered age group.
Men born in 1960 and subsequent years are required to fill out registration forms at their local post offices within 30 days before or after their 18th birthdays. Not to do so is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In all, the Selective Service believes that about 527,000 young men have violated the law by not registering. Approximately 7.9 million have registered.
Using newly authorized access to Social Security records, the Selective Service this month began a computer search to find the non-registrants. Joan Lamb, speaking for Selective Service, said letters will begin going out in August to those who are discovered, warning that they must register or face prosecution.
Most of the 160 currently facing the possibility of prosecution are conscientious objectors who essentially identified themselves by writing to the Justice Department or Selective Service and saying they were refusing to register, many of them for religious reasons.
David Landau of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups involved in the protests, said, "The government is going to have a massive legal battle on their hands if they try to take this into court."
Besides organizing protests, a number of the groups opposing the registration are also putting together teams of lawyers to defend those who are indicted. Among other concerns, they will be carefully watching whether the government attempts to single out vocal opponents of draft registration.
"We're watching the selective prosecution issue very carefully," Landau said. "I suspect some of these people will be prosecuted merely because they spoke up."
Russell said the Justice Department is carefully avoiding any pattern in the indictments, to avoid having selective prosecution raised as a defense.
Barry Lynn of Draft Action predicts that it will be difficult for the government to obtain convictions in any case.
"Toward the end of the Vietnam period, juries began refusing to convict on the grounds that they thought the law was improper...," he said. "I get the sense that juries will not convict now, especially in the case of religious objectors."
In addition, Lynn said, many of the assistant U.S. attorneys who will be handling the cases were of draft age themselves during the Vietnam era and are personally less than anxious to go forward with this type of case.
He added that resistance groups will also be wary of government efforts to move trials to parts of the country where they would have less political impact than in a big city.
Last May, The Washington Post obtained a transcript of a meeting at the Pentagon in which members of the administration suggested that trials of non-registrants be held in remote areas of the country--not Washington, Chicago or New York, cities where major political protests could be expected.
Since President Carter reinstituted draft registration in 1980, no one has been prosecuted for not registering.
Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan campaigned against draft registration, but he changed his mind after he was elected.
Indictments had been expected late last year, but plans were delayed after the Reagan administration announced an amnesty period until last Feb. 28 for young men to come forward and register.