Attrition: Dealing With Criminal Recruits

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April 10,2008: The U.S. Army has, for the last sixty years, turned down most recruits with a criminal record. The reason was that, since an army depended on discipline to function, anyone who broke the law had already demonstrated problems with following orders. Before September 11, 2001, the army found that 27 percent of recruits with criminal records (and given a "moral waiver" to enlist), didn't finish their enlistment because of misconduct (refusing to obey orders, or just a bad attitude). This was twice the rate of troops who did not need a moral waiver. Back then, less than four percent of recruits got moral waivers. That usually required references from teachers, clergy or employers attesting to how the applicant had shaped up, and was worthy of acceptance. But since 2004, the percentage of recruit getting in with moral waivers has tripled to 13 percent. Yet there has not been a noticeable decline in troops quality.There is still a higher percentage of moral waiver recruits getting discharged early, but not double the rate of those without moral waivers.

The army has found ways to lower its traditional admission standards, yet still get people who can perform well in a professional force.This is not just the case with those who do poorly on written tests, or did not finish high school. It's especially the case with those allowed in on waivers. The most common items waived are medical conditions, criminal records or drug use, in that order. For example, many urban recruits have asthma problems. If the recruit is headed for a job that does not require the kind of physical effort that low grade asthma would interfere with, a waiver would be granted. If a prospect has a low grade (no felonies) criminal record, and appears to have moved on from that sort of thing, a waiver is possible. Same with prior drug use. Prospects are made aware of the regular, unannounced, drug tests for troops on active duty. Asking for testimonials from responsible adults helps deal with those seeking moral waivers. The army also has new psychological tests that indicate those that have put their bad behavior behind them, and which haven't.

As a practical matter, the army is using more cash, and more science, to attract, and then retain, less educated recruits. That's right, while recruiting bonuses have gone up, the percentage of high school graduates among recruits has declined. Last year, 71 percent of recruits were high school grads. The others had to complete a high school equivalency exam. Five years ago, 92 percent were high school grads.

The army has long used statistical analysis of recruit records, and the subsequent performance of those soldiers, to work up a profile of recruits that appear risky, but are not. Many recruits with physical or psychological problems are harder, and often impossible, to train. Those with criminal tendencies are often disciplinary problems, even after training, and many of these have to be discharged before their term of service is up. However, after studying millions of recruits, the army has refined its parameters for what kind of person will make a successful soldier. So waivers are not as risky as they used to be, nor are high school dropouts and those who score lower on the aptitude tests.

But there is always risk, and greater cost. These recruits are more expensive to train, and many of them get tossed out later. But the majority do well. This is not popular among the officers and NCOs in units that have to do the tossing. So far, this new category of recruits has accounted for about a thousand additional troops getting "fired" each year. Those who do succeed, will have higher rates of disciplinary problems for as long as they stay in. That's a hundred or so additional courts martial a year.

A lot of the new screening and training techniques come from civilian firms, with similar problems. But the army has innovated as well. Partly because of the unique aspects of military life, and partly because the army is getting a lot of opportunity to perform in this area. What the army is doing now has long been proposed by social reformers who believed the military should be used to upgrade the education and work skills of those who failed to get them at home or in the public schools. There was such an experiment during the Vietnam War (Project 100,000). The army resisted taking these 100,000 recruits, that normally would have been rejected. But the army did learn that many of the 100,000 made good soldiers. Since then, the lessons of Project 100,000 have grown and evolved, until the army is widening its recruit pool in order to keep its strength up in wartime.

 


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