Strained by the demands of a long war, the Army and the Marine Corps recruited significantly more felons into their ranks last year than in 2006, including people convicted of armed robbery, arson and burglary, according to data released yesterday by a House committee.
The number of waivers issued to active-duty Army recruits with felony convictions jumped to 511 in 2007, from 249 in 2006. Marine recruits with felony convictions rose to 350 from 208.
Overall, the numbers represent less than 1 percent of the 115,000 new enlistments last year in the active-duty Army and Marine Corps.
Coupled with sharp increases in the number of waivers for misdemeanors, the trend raises questions about the military's ability to attract good recruits at a time when it is trying to increase enlistment. The Army, which has suffered the most war casualties and the longest deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces an especially difficult challenge in attracting qualified men and women.
From Sept. 30, 2006, to Sept. 30 last year, the Army granted so-called conduct waivers for felonies and misdemeanors to 18 percent of its new recruits, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous year.
In the first six months of this fiscal year, the Army has granted waivers to 13 percent of its recruits.
"It raises concerns," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which requested the information on felony waivers from the Department of Defense. "An increase in the recruitment of individuals with criminal records is a result of the strains put on the military by the Iraq war and may be undermining our military readiness."
Waxman said his committee had requested additional information on the specifics of the felony waivers, the rationale for granting them and the waiver program's track record.
Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder of the Air Force, a Defense Department spokesman, said waivers are used among the services rarely and judiciously.
Dispensations are granted after a careful review of an applicant's record and circumstances surrounding the charge or conviction, he said. Often, he added, the charges occurred when recruits were juveniles and were less serious than they initially appeared.
Only one in three young men in the general population meets the physical, mental, educational and other eligibility requirements to enlist in the armed forces. Ryder said that in the past year, the percentage of waivers issued to people with criminal histories and medical conditions declined for the Defense Department in general.