Federal officials say nearly 1 out of 6 young men in Washington state are committing a felony, and they might not even know it.
Their crime? Not registering for a nonexistent military draft.
Despite the United States not having pressed anyone into military service since 1973, virtually all men ages 18 to 25 still are required to register with the Selective Service System. The agency keeps men’s information on file in case the country needs to mobilize a military force during a time of crisis.
Not registering can cause men big problems down the road, officials say. For one, it is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison – though no one has been prosecuted for that offense in more than 30 years.
More practically, men who don’t register for the draft become ineligible for many federal jobs, as well as federal grants and loans for college. Immigrants who don’t register can also lose their opportunity to become U.S. citizens later on.
Washington state’s compliance rate with Selective Service requirements is especially low, federal officials say. Fewer than 84 percent of 18- to 25-year-old men in Washington registered in 2016, according to numbers from the Selective Service. Across all U.S. states and territories, the national compliance rate is almost 92 percent.
That puts Washington in the bottom quartile of states when it comes to compliance.
Those numbers are a big concern for the Selective Service’s new director, Don Benton, who is from Washington state. Benton, a former Republican state senator from Vancouver, was appointed to lead the agency in April. He previously served several weeks as President Donald Trump’s adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, after chairing Trump’s presidential campaign in Washington state last year.
Benton, who was visiting his home state on an outreach trip this week, wants to see the registration rate in Washington climb as close to 100 percent as possible. He said he’s working to ensure members of underserved communities – such as immigrants and those living in poverty – understand they are required to register and the consequences of not doing so.
“What we’ve found is in states that have either a lot of rural poverty, or high-population density centers where there are pockets of poverty … those tend to not do as well,” Benton said in an interview Tuesday.
Areas with large populations of immigrants also have lower rates of compliance, he said.
Benton said registering is important because it helps “demonstrate that the entire nation stands behind our all-volunteer military in a state of readiness, in case there’s some national emergency.”
“I think the likelihood of a draft is very slim,” Benton said. “But as I always tell my Boy Scouts – I’m a Boy Scout leader, as you know, as I have been for many years – I tell them it’s always good to be prepared. That’s the Boy Scout motto.”
Some Washington state officials also worry about the state’s low compliance rate, but they’re not sure what to do about it, said state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland.
Haler, who said he sits on a local draft board in Eastern Washington, sponsored legislation in 2011 to allow teenagers to register for the draft when they get their driver’s licenses. This week, he said he wants to revisit the issue to see if there’s a way to improve upon that law.
While many states automatically submit young men’s information to the Selective Service when they apply for a driver’s license, men in Washington state are merely asked by the Department of Licensing if they want to register. That means those men can more easily decline.
“The message hasn’t gotten out to a lot of the young men, or they haven’t taken it seriously,” Haler said Monday.
“I think a lot of the young people think that because it’s an all-volunteer Army right now that the draft will never come back again,” he said. “But there could be that possibility.”
Others may consciously choose not to register, according to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan analysis to Congress.
Groups such as the Center on Conscience and War want to eliminate draft-registration requirements, saying the mandates target “conscientious objectors who believe that registering with Selective Service is a form of participating in war.”
Some members of Congress have similarly proposed abolishing the Selective Service, or at least getting rid of the penalties for failing to sign up. Proponents of doing so “argue that ineligibility for federal benefits is most harmful to those with fewer financial resources, who also might be least aware of their obligation to register,” the report from the Congressional Research Service states.
Asked whether men should continue being punished for failing to register for a draft that doesn’t exist, Benton said, “That’s a great question for Congress.”
“I don’t make the laws or the penalties,” he said. “As the director of the agency, I implement the rules and regulations that I am instructed to implement by the president or the United States Congress.”
He added: “I would speculate that members of Congress and members of the community at large believe it is an important civic duty to register.”
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