WASHINGTON — United States Army recruits are not being all that they can be, according to data released earlier this week by a congressional committee.

The US Army admitted approximately 25% 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 US ground forces has led the military to grant more waivers for criminal conduct.

Put another way, the percentage of recruits requiring a waiver to join the army because of a criminal record or other past misconduct has more than doubled since 2004 to one for every eight new soldiers.

Specifically, 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 US Marines increased by two-thirds, from 208 to 350.

From September 30, 2006, to September 30, 2007, the army granted so-called conduct waivers for felonies and misdemeanors to 18% of its new recruits, an increase of three percentage points from the previous year. In just the first six months of fiscal year 2008, the army has granted waivers to 13% of its recruits.

The 2006 and 2007 Pentagon data released Monday show for the first time the number of dispensations issued for specific felonies. The number of army waivers for aggravated assaults with a dangerous weapon rose to 43 from 33. Waivers for burglaries increased to 106 from 36. Waivers for possession of narcotics, excluding marijuana, rose to 130 from 71 and for larceny to 56 from 26.

This problem is mainly in US ground forces. Felony waivers in the navy fell from 48 in 2006 to 42 last year and the air force had none in either year.

Waivers granted for felonies and other crimes constitute the majority of all waivers—about 60% for the army, and 75% for the marines. But other exceptions, such as being overweight are also increasing, suggesting that the army and marines are bringing in lower-quality recruits. The army has created a special program that gives overweight recruits a year to meet the standards. Overall, only one in three young men in the general population meet the physical, mental, educational and other eligibility requirements to enlist in the armed forces.

And, in recent years the army has been accepting more recruits who are not high school graduates. Back in late 2005, the military started a high school equivalency program for high school dropouts.

According to recent congressional testimony by former assistant secretary of defense Larry Korb, the proportion of new army recruits with high school diplomas dropped from over 90% in 2003 to 84% in 2005 to 71% in 2007—the lowest levels in at least 25 years. Further, in the last three years, the amount of recruits who scored in the lowest category, Category 4, has gone up six-fold.

This is the latest evidence to confirm a trend that started a few years ago and has been getting worse. Generally approved at the Pentagon, waivers allow recruiters to sign up men and women who otherwise would be ineligible for service because of legal convictions, medical problems, or other reasons preventing them from meeting minimum standards.

According to a February 2006 article in Salon, the army said that 17% (21,880 new soldiers) of its 2005 recruits were admitted under waivers. Put another way, more soldiers than are in an entire infantry division entered the army in 2005 without meeting normal standards.

This use of waivers then represented a 42% increase since the pre-Iraq War year of 2000. In fact, the article continued, even the already high rate of 17% underestimated the use of waivers because “the Pentagon combined the army’s figures with the lower ones for reserve forces to dilute the apparent percentage”.

But contrary to what some military officials say, the use of waivers is not confined to minor infractions such as misdemeanors. There has also been a significant increase in the number of recruits with what the army terms “serious criminal misconduct” in their background. This category includes committing aggravated assault, robbery, or vehicular manslaughter; receiving stolen property; and making terrorist threats.

On the bright side, in 2007 the active-duty army and marine 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% of the total soldiers and marines recruited that year.

And an analysis of the waivers found that those with criminal waivers and medical waivers tend to do better in recruit training. They tend to finish recruit training. They tend to re-enlist at higher rates and receive more awards for valor than those without waivers.

Still, those who think that worrying about high school dropouts and criminal records is much ado about nothing should remember that on the last day of January 2005, Steven D Green, a former army private accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her family, sat in a Texas jail on alcohol-possession charges. He was an unemployed, 19-year-old high school dropout who had just racked up his third misdemeanor conviction. Green had received a moral waiver.

A link between pre-service behavior and criminal acts while in the military should come as no surprise to Pentagon officials. A 2003 study done for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy found that a number of research studies have been conducted to isolate factors associated with destructive behavior by military personnel.

Two areas of concern have been identified: (1) lack of effective prescreening procedures to identify military entrants with criminal records and other behavioral adjustment problems, and (2) inadequate management practices that have allowed the retention on active duty of military personnel who have shown a pattern of substandard behavior. As a result, a number of individuals are in positions where destructive acts could have the most serious consequences.

A 2007 study by the Center for Naval Analyses found that 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.