More recruits with criminal records, including felony convictions, are being allowed to join the 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 it did 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, which could be petty theft, writing a bad check or some assaults, jumped from about 2,700 to more than 6,000 in 2006. The minor crimes represented more than three-quarters of the moral waivers granted by the Army in 2006, up from more than half in 2003.
Army and Defense Department officials defended the waiver program as a way to admit young people who may have made a mistake early in life but have overcome past behavior. And they said about two-thirds of the waivers granted by the Marines are for drug use, because they — unlike the other services — require a waiver if someone has been convicted once for marijuana use.
Lawmakers and other observers say they are concerned that the struggle to fill the military ranks in this time of war has forced the services to lower their moral standards.
"The data is crystal clear. 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, D-Mass., 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 is concerned because the Pentagon data differs from Army numbers. But overall, he said, "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.
Belkin said a new study commissioned by the center also concludes that the military does not have any programs that help convicted felons adjust to military life.
In recent years, as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have dragged on, the military has also 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 whose scores on a standardized aptitude test are at the lower end of the acceptable range.
In its report, the Pentagon said, "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."
According to the Pentagon, nearly a quarter of new military recruits needed some type of waiver in 2006, up from 20 percent in 2003. Roughly 30,000 moral waivers were approved each year between 2003 and 2006.
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. Because many states have different crimes categorized as a felony or misdemeanor, the groupings are more general.
About one in five Army recruits needed a waiver to enlist in 2006, up from 12.7 percent in 2003. In addition, the report showed that the Army granted substantially fewer waivers for drug use and serious traffic violations last year than 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. Felony waivers made up about 2 percent of the Marine waivers, while other lesser crimes made up about 25 percent, both up slightly from 2003.
About 18 percent of Navy recruits required a waiver, up only slightly from 2003. Two-thirds of the waivers granted by the Navy were for misdemeanor-type crimes and about 5 percent were for felonies.
Just 8 percent of Air Force recruits had waivers, down a bit from 2003. Nearly all of the waivers were for the misdemeanor-type crimes.