Hour Two: Strained Military Admits Felons

New data shows the Army and Marine Corps brought in more recruits with felony convictions last year than in 2006. The number of soldiers with felony records more than doubled, to 511, and Marines with felonies rose to 350.

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BILL WOLFF: From NPR News in New York, this is the Bryant Park Project.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Overlooking historic Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, live from NPR Studios, this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. News, information, and shoes information. I'm Mike Pesca.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

And I'm Rachel Martin. It is Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008. What kind of shoes are you wearing today?

PESCA: I'm wearing the shoes that I feel like I'm putting one over on the man, these slippery shoes. What do they call these? You know, they're the...

MARTIN: Clogs?

PESCA: No, they're the Merrells.

MARTIN: Ah, the Merrells.

PESCA: Right. So from the outside, they look like I'm an actual adult, but I'm more like a kid who can't tie his own shoes. Quick Merrell story. I once interviewed a member of Congress, and he was wearing Merrells, and we had a Merrell chat about them. And that man got voted out of office in 2006 midterms.

MARTIN: You think because it was Merrells?

PESCA: Well, you also had a pretty draconian immigration policy.

MARTIN: Well, besides that.

PESCA: No, but the voters actually said it was the Merrells.

MARTIN: So why are we talking about shoes? Because we're going to talk about shoes, and how they might not be good for your feet, right?

PESCA: Yeah, there's pretty good evidence that they're pretty terrible for the feet. Also, at this hour, it's New Music Tuesday. New stuff from an old guy who's great, Billy Bragg. Also in that category, Elvis Costello. Decidedly not in that category in either way, Ashlee Simpson.

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MARTIN: Your opinion. I love her.

PESCA: Isn't it like fact? Can't we just call that fact? Also, the military is trying to get more money in their budget for dental hygiene. That's right, dental hygiene, brusha, brusha, brusha. Turns out that dental readiness is a big problem in Army Reserves and affects troop readiness.

MARTIN: I found this fascinated. It makes sense. If you've had a really bad toothache. I mean, it is incapacitating.

PESCA: Yeah, or really overstretched Army. Either way, we will get today's headlines in just a minute. But first...

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PESCA: Do you believe in second chances? The U.S. military seems to. New recruiting figures show that the Army and Marine Corps accepted a significantly higher number of recruits with felony convictions in 2007 than the year before.

MARTIN: The number of soldiers admitted to the Army with felony records rose to 511 last year, more than double the number from 2006. And the number of Marines with felonies rose to 350, up from 208 the year before. The Navy accepted fewer felons, and the Air Force didn't accept any.

PESCA: The bulk of the crimes involves were burglaries, thefts, and drug offenses, but there were more serious crimes, too. Some recruits had convictions for sex crimes, manslaughter, or vehicular homicide. Several dozen had aggravated-assault or robbery convictions, including incidents involving weapons, and two were convicted for terrorist threats, including bomb threats.

MARTIN: Each recruit with a criminal background needs a special waiver to join. As the need for soldiers, sailors, and Marines is increased, the military has tried to streamline this waver process and reduce the list of crimes that require waivers.

PESCA: Lieutenant General James Thurman, Army deputy chief of staff, says the increase in recruits with criminal records isn't cause for concern.

Lieutenant General JAMES THURMAN (Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Army): They are going to the Army fast, and there are some waivers. We know that. It hadn't alarmed us yet.

MARTIN: And Thurman says the program represents the military's investment in young recruits, much as it once invested in him.

Lieutenant General THURMAN: I never thought I'd be where I am today, you know. But the thing of it is, you got to give people opportunity to serve.

PESCA: The number of recruits with felonies on their records, just a fraction of the 180,000 new service personnel recruited over this time period. But Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who released the data, calls the increase a result of the strain put on the military by the Iraq war, which says, quote, "may be undermining military readiness."

MARTIN: In another report, for the third consecutive year, the Army missed Defense Department benchmarks for education attainment as well. The Army wants 90 percent of its recruits to have regular high school degrees, as opposed to GEDs. But last year, the number was only 70.7. Check back with npr.org throughout the day for updates on this and all the stories you hear. Now let's get some more of today's headlines with Mark Garrison.

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