Image of Army soldiers marching and artillery. The caption reads "can felons join the Army, answered here."

Many have heard the anecdotal stories of the judge who said, “go to prison or join the Army.” And while that may have been an option in the Vietnam-era and before, today’s US Army believes that your moral character is an important factor in your success as a soldier.

So, can you join the Army with a felony? The answer might surprise you.

Can You Join the Army with a Felony?

A Strong Economy Means Fewer People Joining the Military

When the economy lags or goes into recession, many people turn to the military for financial stability.

However, when the U.S. job market is strong, college enrollments plummet and the U.S. Army has trouble meeting its recruiting goals. This is largely a result of high school graduates having their pick of a number of high paying civilian jobs immediately after graduation.

Currently, the U.S. economy has added new jobs for 102 months straight; the longest hot streak in American history. It is partly because of this economic hot streak that the Army has had trouble filling its ranks with willing soldiers. In addition, because of fitness and weight requirements, 70% of America’s youth do not meet the standards for enlistment. But there is another standard that the U.S. Army requires as well.

Sound Moral Character

Statistically, 1 in 3 adults has a criminal conviction in the United States. This means that there are approximately 70 million people who must contend with a less-than-stellar background check when applying for opportunities in the job market. As we all know jobs for felons can be hard to come by.

The majority of those 70 million people want nothing more than to get on with their lives and be productive members of society.

For its part, the Army puts a strong emphasis on recruiting soldiers with “sound moral character.”

Strictly defined, moral character is the existence or lack of virtues such as integrity, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty. In other words, it means that you’re a good person and a good citizen with a sound moral compass. Sound moral character also means that you have a respect for authority including state and federal law.

War has its own set of laws called the Geneva Convention for Rules of Engagement that dictates the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel, medical personnel and non-military civilians during a war or armed conflicts.

By and large, the Army wants individuals who won’t discredit the United States during times of armed conflict. But it’s more than that; the Army would prefer not to spend the time and money needed to deal with a “problem soldier.” There are studies that show a correlation between pre-service criminal history and in-service misconduct.

Therefore, in many cases, a felony conviction could prevent a person from joining the Army.

So, is all hope lost? Not yet.

Enlistment Requirements Are Not Set in Stone

The current ‘slim pickings’ of willing recruits put the U.S. military in a bind: Where to find willing soldiers to make mission, and meet America’s global threats and near-peer level adversaries like Russia and China?

Recruitment standards are one of the few Pentagon regulations that are not set in stone. If needed in times of a shortage of soldiers, the Army lowers the fitness requirements to make more individuals eligible for enlistment. In addition, the Army is willing to consider Americans who have a criminal history, depending on the severity of the crime.

Called a “moral waiver” or “conduct waiver,” individuals with a criminal background can apply to be evaluated, depending on the type of felony conviction. An Army recruiter is typically the person who would walk an individual through the waiver process and acceptance depends on a number of factors:

  • What was your felony conviction was for? There is a big difference between armed robbery and drug possession.
  • Are you currently facing criminal proceedings?
  • Was your conviction as a minor or as an adult?
  • Are you currently on probation?
  • Was your crime a one-time offense, or are you a repeat offender?

What Felony Crime Did You Commit?

The nature and severity of the crime could be the deciding factor in your successful enlistment. After all, there are some crimes that may be considered instant dis-qualifiers for military service. Some examples may include arson, embezzlement, extortion, grand theft, involuntary manslaughter, rape, or other sex crimes.

Having said that, there are select instances in the past (2006 and 2007) in which the Army granted moral waivers for three applicants with manslaughter convictions, 11 applicants convicted of arson and 142 who had been convicted of burglary.

It is worth mentioning that some branches of the military are less strict than others. For instance, a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) conviction would disqualify you from joining the Air Force, but the U.S. Marine Corps may take you.

The Army is, in fact, the most lenient when it comes to considering the nature of the crime. Ultimately, the Army is the largest branch (more than double the size of the Marine Corps) and presumably has the most jobs that need to be filled.

Are you currently facing criminal proceedings?

It is unlikely the Army will consider you for enlistment if you are currently awaiting trial, or even caught in the middle of a civil lawsuit until the litigation is resolved.

Typically, the Army will want you to be free and clear of any legal matter that could potentially follow you into the service. The philosophy behind a detailed criminal background check reflects the fact that your legal problems become the Army’s legal problems once you enlist.

This, in turn, could affect your mission-readiness as a soldier; after all, you won’t be able to deploy in support of various operations if you are due in court stateside.

Was your conviction as a minor or as an adult?

Despite the idea that convictions as a minor are “sealed”, a military background check, especially for a security clearance, can and will expose under-age felony convictions.

Typically, decisions on whether to count convictions under the age of 18 are performed on a case by case basis.

When in doubt, it is always better to disclose your complete criminal history to your recruiter even if you believe that the records have been sealed or expunged. If it is found out later that you lied or omitted details of your past, it could be a reason for dismissal from the Army.

Felony Expungement – In a number of states it is possible to have your felony conviction either expunged or sealed. Imagine having your record swiped clean! Learn more here.

Are you currently on probation?

Similar to facing criminal proceedings, the Army will not accept you until you are completely off of probation or parole. Often, probation requires a “check-in” with an officer of the court at regular intervals, within close proximity to where you live.

In contrast, the Army will likely need you deployable and able to relocate. An Army recruiter will tell you to come back once you have successfully completed the conditions of your probation.

Was your crime a one-time offense, or are you a repeat offender?

One of the many variables that the Army looks for when considering a waiver is whether the felony was a one-time offense.

Repeat felony offenders are a red flag to Army recruiters as this may signal a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of the Army.

Again, it is worth mentioning that all Army waivers are performed on a case by case basis. The best bet is to speak with a recruiter.

What Exactly Does the U.S. Army look For When Considering a Moral Waiver?

By now, we have established that you can, in fact, join the Army with a felony conviction. But there are four primary factors that the Army will look at closely when considering a waiver:

  • Absence of later violations
  • Evidence of rehabilitation
  • Satisfactory completion of a period probation or parole
  • Needs of the Army

All of the conditions listed show that the Army is interested in evidence that you have rehabilitated yourself and are ready for active duty.

No doubt, the military can be a great place for a fresh start for a convicted felon who has been through a period of rehabilitation and has had no other criminal violations.

In fact, the most dynamic variable is always the “needs of the Army.” In times of lower enlistment or national crisis, the Army has and will continue to allow people into the military who may not have been qualified otherwise.

In this sense, timing is everything. For instance, as of this writing, the Army is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. In 2018, the Army set a goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers and fell short by nearly 10,000 people. It is no better in 2019. This means that the Army is accepting moral waivers at an increased rate.

How to Apply for a Moral Waiver

The process starts by speaking to an Army recruiter. The recruiter will ask the applicant if they have ever been arrested, what crimes they may have committed, including traffic violations, and ask about any juvenile crimes; even those that may have been sealed or expunged.

Once the applicant admits to having a criminal history, the recruiter will request a complete background check from local law enforcement agencies.

It is worth noting that the individual Army recruiters have no authority to waive a criminal offense. Waivers for more minor felonies can be granted by the local recruiting battalion commander. More serious offenses must get approved by the Commanding General of the Army Recruiting Command.

The good news is that the Army considers the “whole person” concept when approving waivers. Applicants who score well on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, Armed Forces Qualification Test (ASVAB AFQT) have a higher chance of receiving a waiver.

In addition, applicants with outstanding high school grades or college credits will also benefit the waiver approval process.

The final piece to keep in mind is that there is no strict set of guidelines for this entire process. Waivers are certainly more subjective, typically based on the approval authority’s personal experience. For instance, if the battalion commander’s spouse was struck by a drunk driver, he or she may be less likely to approve a waiver for a repeat DUI offender.

The Appeals Process

If you need a waiver for criminal history, then you are already at a point where you do not meet the standards for enlistment in the Army. In this sense, the waiver itself is the appeals process.

Unfortunately, there is no process to appeal a waiver that has been denied by the Army.

It is important to note that each waiver process is for one branch only. This means that a waiver that was denied by the Army does not disqualify you from other branches of service like the Navy or Marine Corps.

In the event that a waiver was denied by your preferred branch of service, speak to a recruiter from another branch and go through the process again.

If that fails, it is possible that the timing is just not right. Either the military isn’t feeling the pressure to waive its standards, or the waiver approval authority, i.e. battalion commander, could have just been having a bad day. Wait a year and try again. With enough time, the battalion commander will have moved on to a new post and a new approval authority will fill their spot.

Yes, You Can Join the Army with a Felony

The military can be a phenomenal place for a fresh start. The esprit de corps and camaraderie can forge friendships that last a lifetime.

The structure and discipline found in the Army is also a great path to mental toughness and why many veterans are so successful in business and entrepreneurship when they leave the military.

The first step is to speak with an Army recruiter in your hometown and discuss your criminal history in detail. The “whole person” concept means that you will be evaluated not just on the bad things you may have done, but the good things as well.

Armed with the knowledge of the process, good timing and a little luck, the Army can be an excellent option for applicants with a felony criminal history.

Let Us Know Your Experience With The Army and a Felony Record

Please leave your comments below. It helps us and other felons get the knowledge they need to improve and move past mistakes.

Did we answer the question “Can You Join the Army with a Felony?” Comment below and let us know how we did!

Felony Expungement – In a number of states it is possible to have your felony conviction either expunged or sealed. Imagine having your record swiped clean! Learn more here.