Can I Join the Military if I Have a Criminal Record?

Thousands of young men and women join the military each year because of a sense of patriotism or a desire to take advantage of generous incentives. The United States Army alone recruited well over 75,000 recruits during the fiscal year 2020.

Not every potential recruit who wants to join the military can make the cut. Various physical, mental, and moral conditions can disqualify a person from military service. If you want to join the military but have a juvenile or criminal record, you may find yourself among those disqualified from serving your country.

Each Branch Sets Its Own Policies

No matter what branch of service you join, you will need to pass through the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). MEPS screens candidates for enlistment and commissioning to ensure they are qualified for service. If you have any disqualifying illness, condition, or record, MEPS will not allow you to proceed without a waiver.

Each branch determines whether it will grant waivers to candidates, including waivers for criminal convictions and juvenile records. The needs of that branch of service and the severity of the situation will determine whether the branch will grant a waiver. If you are unsuccessful in enlisting in one branch, you may try joining another.

Your Criminal Record and Military Service

While at MEPS, you will undergo a screening of your moral character. This screening is a background check. MEPS personnel will ask you to disclose all criminal activity in your past, including convictions, adjudications, arrests, and charges the police or prosecutors brought against you.

You must disclose your entire history, even if you successfully had the conviction sealed or expunged. You must also disclose any juvenile adjudications.

Arrests Not Resulting in Charges or a Finding of Guilt

While you must disclose arrests and charges in your past, these pose the least difficulty for joining the services. Arrests that did not result in any charges, or charges that did not result in a finding of guilt, don’t require any waiver from the various branches of service.

Misdemeanor and Juvenile Offenses

A history that includes only traffic offenses, misdemeanor offenses, or juvenile offenses will require that you obtain a waiver from the service before you can enlist. However, you can receive a waiver for most crimes that fall into these categories.

Though the military waives most traffic, juvenile, and misdemeanor offenses, there are exceptions. The likelihood of getting a waiver decreases as the number of violations in your past increases. Additionally, you may have more difficulty getting a waiver if your crimes reflect poorly on your trustworthiness.

Felony Offenses

You will have difficulty obtaining a waiver if you have a felony on your record. Waivers are possible, but each branch will closely consider the age of the offense, the type of offense, and whether the crime is an isolated incident.

Nonetheless, no branch of the military can waive some felony crimes. Some of the felonies that will prevent you from joining include:

  • Murder, manslaughter, or sexual assault
  • Terrorism
  • Offenses relating to the sale, distribution, or smuggling of drugs
  • Multiple felony convictions of any type

You must still disclose these convictions even if you have successfully sealed or expunged them or if the court has set the conviction aside.

A Final Word About Your Criminal Record

If you are ever in doubt about whether to disclose your juvenile record or criminal record to the military, err on the side of caution and admit it. If you try to hide or lie about your record, not only will the military court-martial and discharge you immediately, but you could also face felony charges. These could result in up to three years of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.