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The United States Marine Corps (USMC) is the smallest, and perhaps most elite branch of the American military. Historically, the USMC specialized in expeditionary and amphibious operations, but today, the USMC deploys as a lightning-fast Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) that includes both ground forces and air elements.

Can You Join the Marines with a Felony?

Who needs the Army, Coast Guard or the Air Force when your branch has its own infantry and fighter planes?

The USMC often works closely with the U.S. Navy. In fact, the Marines fall under the Department of the Navy and future Marine officers attend the U.S. Naval Academy before commissioning. Because of this, many of the rules and regulations of the U.S. Navy apply to the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps Mentality (USMC)

It is important to understand the way Marines view themselves and the incredibly high standards they require before applying with a felony or criminal background. Even without a felony, it is very difficult to gain acceptance into the USMC. As recently as five years ago, the military was turning down 75% of people who applied!

The Marine Corps takes that a step further and is extremely selective with its new recruits. Having said that, people with a felony have successfully joined the USMC in the past. In addition, when dealing with any branch of the U.S military, there can be a waiver for everything. This is especially true if the military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals.

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

A Strong Economy Means Fewer People Joining the Military

This is a great thing for felons trying to join the Marine Corps!

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. military has trouble meeting its recruiting goals. This is largely a result of high school graduates having their pick of several high paying civilian jobs immediately after graduation.

Currently, the U.S. economy has added new jobs for 104 months straight; the longest hot streak in American history. It is partly because of this economic hot streak that the Marines has had trouble filling its ranks with willing recruits. In addition, because of fitness and weight requirements, 70% of America’s youth do not meet the standards for enlistment.

When the USMC has trouble finding new recruits (like in a time of war or a strong economy), all the rules get thrown out the window. This opens the door for something called a waiver and allows felons to join the Marines (USMC).

Still, the USMC and other military branches put a strong emphasis on “Sound Moral Character.” But what does that mean?

Sound Moral Character And The Marines

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.

Image of Marines raising an American Flag

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 USMC puts a strong emphasis on recruiting Marines with “sound moral character.”

Strictly defined, moral character is the existence 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.

By selecting applicants with strong moral character, the Marines is ensuring that new recruits have social habits that are not a threat to the morality of a unit. They also want to make sure that their new recruits are not in contact or communicating with criminals in the civilian world.

But most of all, the Marines wants individuals who won’t discredit the United States during times of armed conflict. But it’s more than that; the Marines would prefer not to spend the time and money needed to deal with a “problem Marine.” 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 military. So, is all hope lost? Not yet.

Marine Corps Enlistment Requirements Are Not Set in Stone

The current ‘slim pickings’ of willing recruits put the USMC in a bind: Where to find willing Marines 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 Marines, the USMC lowers the fitness requirements to make more individuals eligible for enlistment. In addition, the USMC 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 or felony background can apply to be evaluated, depending on the type of felony conviction. A Marine recruiter is typically the person who would walk an individual through the waiver process and your acceptance depends on a few 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?

Applicants currently incarcerated, on parole, serving a suspended sentence or on probation are not eligible for enlistment until the sentence has been completed. As an exception, an unconditional suspended sentence or unsupervised unconditional probation, which results from conviction of offenses listed as Traffic Offenses are not considered to require a waiver. Neither is a suspended or revoked driver’s license considered to require a waiver. In these limited cases, applicants are eligible for enlistment provided they are otherwise well-qualified.

How Do I Know if I Need a Waiver to Join the Marine Corps?

A waiver to get into the Marine Corps is required if you have:

  • Five to nine minor traffic offenses
  • Two to five more serious traffic offenses
  • Two or more Class 1 minor non-traffic offenses
  • Two to nine Class 2 minor non-traffic offenses
  • Two to five serious offenses
  • One felony

According to MCRCO 1100.1, the Marine Corps recruiting policy, no waiver is required if you have up to 4 traffic offenses.

What Crime Did You Commit?

The nature and severity of the felony or crime could be the deciding factor in your successful enlistment. After all, there are some crimes and felonies that may be considered instant disqualifiers 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 military 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.

What if my Criminal Record was “Expunged?”

Some states have established procedures for the subsequent “expunging of the felony record,” “dismissal of charges,” or “pardon” upon evidence of rehabilitation of the offender.

For instance, the judge says that after successful completion of, say, community service, your record will be expunged.

Such action has the legal effect of extinguishing the initial “conviction” or “adverse juvenile adjudication” so that, under state law, the applicant has no record of conviction or adverse juvenile adjudication. Still, the record must be revealed to your recruiter and a waiver is required at the proper enlistment decision level.

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.

Was Your Felony 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 Marine 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 Marine Corps.

REMEMBER: ​Providing false information, or withholding required information is a federal offense, and individuals may be tried by a Federal or Military Court.

Was Your Crime a One-Time Offense, or are you a Repeat Offender?

One of the many variables that the USMC looks for when considering a waiver is whether the felony was a one-time offense. Repeat felony offenders are a red flag to USMC recruiters as this may signal a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of the Marines. Again, it is worth mentioning that all Marine Corps waivers are performed on a case by case basis. The best bet is to speak with a recruiter.

What Exactly Does the U.S. Marine Corps look For When Considering a Felony Moral Waiver?

By now, we have established that you can, in fact, be accepted into the Marines with a prior felony conviction. But there are four primary factors that the USMC will look at closely when considering a waiver:

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

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

No doubt, the military, particularly the Marines 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 Marines.” In times of lower enlistment or national crisis, the USMC has and will continue to allow people into the military who may not have been qualified otherwise.

In this sense, timing is one of the most important factors.

How to Apply for a Moral Waiver

The process starts by speaking to a Marine 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.

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 Marine recruiters have no authority to waive a criminal offense. Waivers for more minor felonies can be granted by the Marine recruiting station commanding officer. More serious offenses must get approved by the district commanding officer or even the Marine recruiting region’s commanding general.

The good news is that the Marines consider 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 or perhaps even the mood they are in on that particular day.

The Marines Appeals Process for Felons

If you need a waiver for a felony or criminal history, then you are already at a point where you do not meet the standards for enlistment. 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 Marines.

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

In the event that a felony waiver was denied by the Marines, 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. recruiting commander, could have just been having a bad day. Wait a year and try again. With enough time, the recruiting commander will have moved on to a new post and a new approval authority will fill their spot.

Yes, You Can Join the Marines 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. As they say in the Marines (USMC), once a Marine, always a Marine!

The structure and discipline found in the USMC 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 a Marine recruiter in your hometown and discuss your felony 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 Marine Corps can be an excellent option for applicants with a criminal history.