Research Findings

A second chance in the military


January 21, 2021

As many as 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record. Many of them face multiple barriers to employment.

In 2018, 95 percent of employers conducted background checks during the hiring process, which was up from 70 percent of the employers surveyed in 2012. In addition, many state occupational licensing laws prohibit people with criminal records from joining licensed professions. These barriers, coupled with the persistent social stigma surrounding past arrest and conviction records, mean that employment prospects are grim for a substantial segment of the U.S. population.

Within this social context, the United States military happens to be one of the largest employers to regularly hire people with a criminal record. However, we know little about their lives, other than that people with a criminal record perform equally well or better than their counterparts without a criminal record.

In a recent article with Miranda Hines, we examined the relative risks of combat exposure, disability, and death between enlisted soldiers with and without criminal records in the U.S. Army. We found that people with felony and misdemeanor records are more likely to be assigned to dangerous occupations, more likely to be disabled or injured, and more likely to die while serving in the Army.

Military Service as a Second Chance

Collateral consequences of criminal conviction has been well documented. In the civilian world, people with a criminal record are not only barred from obtaining occupational licenses, but are also excluded from receiving social assistance and participating in civic activities. Therefore, some have argued that the disenfranchisement of “ex-offenders” and “ex-felons” evokes the medieval condition of “civil death.”

Then, it may not be surprising that the U.S. Code, Title 10, Section 504 prohibits enlistment of people with a felony conviction. However, a waiver can be issued on meritorious basis by evaluating the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the offense in question. Given many people with arrest and conviction records are screened out of consideration with the use of criminal background checks elsewhere, it is remarkable that the military conducts a “whole person” evaluation to screen their applicants.

Once enlisted, military service offers stable employment, competitive pay, and comprehensive benefits, from health care, tuition assistance, tax services, legal resources, housing, family support programs and more. Considering that many people with a criminal record are unemployed or underemployed, military service stands in stark contrast as an important second-chance route to social mobility.

Military Service and Reproduction of Inequality

However, one glaring omission from the above discussion is the fact that military service carries serious risks of psychological trauma, physical injury and death. Needless to say, joining the military is a profound life-altering decision not everyone makes.

What we know from past research is that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to consider joining the military. We also know that the burden of combat is not equally distributed across personnel in both present and the past. 

After all, the U.S. military is an extension of the society and reproduces existing social inequalities. The important yet unanswered question is whether people with a criminal record shoulder unequal burden of military service.

Using the administrative records we obtained from the Department of Defense, we identified soldiers with a felony or misdemeanor record who joined the Army between 2002 through 2009. We then carefully combed through hundreds of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes, and classified them into low, medium, and high combat exposure groups. Controlling for other relevant factors, our analysis revealed that people with a criminal record are significantly more likely to be assigned to occupations that are indicative of combat.

By identifying soldiers who left the Army due to disability or injury, we then compared soldiers with and without a criminal record. Accounting for combat exposure, we found that soldiers with a felony or misdemeanor record are more likely to be injured or disabled.

We also compared mortality rates between soldiers with and without a criminal record. Soldiers with a felony or misdemeanor record faced a much higher risk of death than those without such records, even though we accounted for combat exposure and other relevant factors.

Implications for Public Policy

2020 has brought an increased awareness to the inmate firefighters in California, putting their lives on the line and performing physically demanding duties to protect Californians from wildfires. Our research adds to the growing body of knowledge about the nature of jobs that are available to the people who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

An urgent need exists for improving equity in combat assignment and casualties within the U.S. military. Because second chances are scarce, it is important that people with a criminal record remain eligible to serve in the military through the moral waiver process. At the same time, it is important to understand the full extent of collateral consequences that are associated with criminal convictions, including injury and death, especially because many people with a criminal record lack the right to vote.

Read more

Eiko Strader and Miranda Hines. “Will You Die for Your Country? Workplace Death in an Era of Mass Incarceration” in Sociological Forum 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: US Army via Wiki Commons

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