This is a trope for when a person becomes a criminal because of socio-economic reasons, or just plain horrible circumstances, and is portrayed sympathetically because of this. Basically a person or a group of people are in dire straits and need money immediately and become bank robbers, and drug dealers out of necessity. This trope usually occurs in crime dramas (specifically urban dramas). Also may be considered Truth in Television. And more often than not it's usually overlapped with Plethora of Mistakes. Also can be a case where a hero has to choose to do what's right despite being illegal. Or something morally dubious for a greater good. This trope almost always fall on the Gray and Grey Morality side.
Some social analysts have also have been known to refer to this as "Survival Crimes".
This trope is to be expected in a Crapsack World. See also Karmic Thief and Caper Rationalization. Compare to: I Did What I Had to Do. See also Single Mom Stripper, in which necessity leads to degrading (but not necessarily criminal) work and Health Care Motivation, in which the criminal wants money to pay a treatment or operation for a friend or sibling.
May involve an Asshole Victim on the receiving end, particularly if the Justified Criminal is presented as sympathetic for committing assault or even murder in the defense of someone else.
Compare Well-Intentioned Extremist and Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters for more politically-flavored sister-tropes.
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Anime and Manga
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Homura must steal guns, bombs, rocket launchers, and even a friggin' missile to arm herself in her endless struggle against Walpurgisnacht. First she robs the yakuza dry, then she hauls the armory of the JSDF.
The first anime of Fullmetal Alchemist has an example where Ed and Al meet a thief who claims to rob so she can support the local hospital. The hospital still goes belly-up, revealing that the thief actually subverted this trope by keeping the riches for herself. She subsequently becomes a nun, so she can lie about supporting the local church, and then a teacher, so she can claim to help keep the school afloat.
Based on the most-popular version of his origin (the Alan Moore version), The Joker qualifies. He was just an ordinary non-criminal who had to do one job to help support his pregnant wife...Then again, it's the Joker, so who knows how true that story is.
In the super-comic miniseries The Pro, the eponymous character is a new superhero on the ersatz Justice League.... and a career prostitute with a kid. Spectacular levels of gag-a-maggot self justification abound. A typical example of the writer's thoughtful social commentary includes gems like:
Speedster hero: "We're the League! We battle world destroying supervillains and cosmic perils! We've saved the world a dozen times over!" The Pro: "Too bad you couldn't save a world where I didn't have to (engage in oral sex) to feed my kid."
Films — Animated
In Aladdin, the only thing that the title character steals is food, and no one but the completely heartless would blindly condemn that. The merchants and guards don't see it that way.
Aladdin: Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat. Otherwise we'd get along.
Joe Chill, killer of the Thomas and Martha Wayne went from being a hitman in the comics to a desperate man trying to survive, though he still killed the Waynes unnecessarily. Realizing this, and being deprived of the chance to kill Chill himself drives Bruce Wayne to embark on his war on crime.
Bruce: The first time I stole so that I wouldn't starve. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.
Flint "Sandman" Marko from Spider-Man 3 was robbing banks just to help his sick daughter.
The girls from the film Set It Off
Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) has Nicholas Cage stealing cars to help his younger brother, who got in trouble promising too much to a crime lord. Of course, the detective investigating the thefts learns of this and lets him go in the end. That Cage had just saved the cop's life and given him the information he needed to recover the cars may have also had something to do with it.
The film Dead Presidents follows a promising and popular inner-city high school graduate, Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), who decides to forego college and enter the Vietnam War as a member of the Marine Corps. Anthony survives a graphic and arduous three-plus-year stint in the jungle, but upon his homecoming, he realizes that the "real world" can be just as trying as war. His low-paying job provides little support for his new family and he becomes desperate to make ends meet. He enlists the help of his wife's sister who is a radical black panther member, some old friends and war buddies and plans a daring armored car heist which, if successful, could serve to amend his past and brighten his future... And of course EVERYTHING goes horribly wrong.
Straight Out of Brooklyn is a gritty story about Dennis, an African-American teen living in a housing project with his sister, mother and abusive, alcoholic father. Fed up with his family's seemingly hopeless future, he plans with his friends to rob a drug dealer. Of course the consequences is like a domino effect which leads to a very bitterly cruel Everybody's Dead, Dave ending.
V in V for Vendetta is a terrorist and murderer, but his target is a totalitarian fascist government that advocates ethnic cleansing and legitimized itself by maintaining order after creating and unleashing a virus that has reached pandemic levels outside of Britain.
In the remake of Fun With Dick And Jane they try to use every other option available to legally survive before they start their crime spree.
In the movie Catch That Kid, a bunch of kids robbed a high-security bank in order to pay for surgery for the father of one of the kids.
Al Pacino's character in Dog Day Afternoon. He needed the money to pay for his girlfriend's sex change operation.
Denzel Washington in John Q. holds up a hospital to ensure that his dying son gets the operation he needs.
Samuel L. Jackson in The Negotiator. When he is falsely accused of his best friend's murder, Jackson holds a government office hostage in order to clear his name and learn the truth.
In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale starts out his career of conning people and counterfeiting checks after running away from home and trying to support himself. He gets less sympathetic as his crimes and the amount of money he has stolen increase, but he remains likeable as a develish rogue who outsmarts his enemies with sheer brains and bravado, and also scores points for tiring of his life as a criminal.
Sergio Leone was apparently quite fond of this sort of character. Examples include Tuco in The Good The Bad And The Ugly (who while not the most pleasant of people has a very emotional conversation with his brother where it is implied he grew up in poverty and had to become a bandit to survive), Cheyenne from Once Upon a Time in the West (who actually helps the protagonists after being framed for a series of murders he didn't commit, even going as far as to allow himself to be turned in so that the reward money can be used to keep Jill Mc Bain's farm), and Juan Miranda from Duck, You Sucker!, who is really just a poor man who loves his family and is trying to take care of them and is genuinely heartbroken when they're killed by the Mexican army.
Half the point of Les MisÚrables; justified because the messed-up justice system of the time is what the book is about. Making Valjean a justified Justified Criminal. The book also makes it clear that the poverty of the Thenardiers is no excuse; so perhaps it's the Heel-Face Turn that's important and Valjean is really The Atoner.
Valjean's original crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children, however he broke a window to steal that bread, making it burglary. By the time he gets out of prison, he can't get a job (because he's a convict). It should also be noted that most of what Valjean steals he might have been given, had he asked (the bread, and bishop's silver). Also, Valjean only stole from those who could afford it, whereas the Thenardiers' extortion forced Fantine into prostitution, which caused her death.
Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife, because when you end up being dropped naked into unexpected situations, odds are you're going to have to steal clothes and beat up on anyone who decides to come after you when you're in a vulnerable state.
A lot of people and governments in World War Z do things that would put them in jail (or worse) if it wasn't for the crazy circumstances.
In the book series Maximum Ride the main characters often steal in order to survive and to get to where they need to go including stealing a van and somebody's ATM card+ pin number.
In On the Run, the main characters find themselves having to steal food, clothes, even cars in order to survive in their quest to prove their parents' innocence.
A couple examples from the Dark Life series: The Seablite gang from book one and the Drift surfs from Rip Tide. They don't have any other options.
Lisbeth Salander in The Millennium Trilogy steals hundreds of millions of dollars by very clever use of computer hacking and disguise, and gets the reader's sympathy for her cleverness. Anyway, the original owner was a nssty villain who in the first place got the money in very nasty ways and who clearly "deserved it". Moreover, Salander had had a hard life and when becoming a multi-millionaire does not any extravagant use of the stolen money - just enough to enjoy life a bit, in between very harsh and dangerous adventures.
Angel: Before the show begins, Gunn has formulated a gang of homeless youths who swipe food and defend their ghetto from intruding vampires.
Most of the teens from the HBO series The Corner (which is inspired by a true story)
Deconstructed in Breaking Bad. Walter White, a chemistry teacher starts cooking meth to pay for cancer treatment and leave an inheritance for his wife and children. Through the series, his justification slowly falls apart, and it becomes clear that he's doing it out of pride of his own accomplishments for the most part. When Walter finds his supposedly-terminal cancer is in remission and he may survive after all, the effect this has on his worldview is devastating. In a later episode he admits that he's sorry his cancer didn't kill him fast enough.
The brothers Winchester on Supernatural can't get legitimate work due to their monster-hunting activities, so they support themselves through credit card fraud, hustling, and the occasional act of burglary. Sam also has a habit of boosting cars when he's separated from Dean.
Iljimae Il Ji-mae, Yong, Swe-Dol, and arguably the Castor Oil Gang.
Mike Ross in the premiere of Suits agrees to act as a one-time drug courier so he can afford his grandmother's medical care.
The crew of Moya on Farscape is made up of a collection of escaped convicts on the run from the Peacekeepers over crimes they may or may not have committed. Many of their less than legal actions over the course of the series are in the sole interests of their own survival, and are perpetrated against those far, far worse than themselves (such as robbing a Shadow Depository—an underworld bank where pirates and other criminals store their ill-gotten goods—to finance the rescue of D'Argo's son from slavery).
A subversion is an episode of Chuck wherein the Buy More is robbed by a bumbling, all around likable guy. who is actually a competent, ruthless agent of the Nebulous Evil Organization in the series and who did the robbery only to draw Chuck and his partners out.
CSI: New York had a season finale with a bank robber whose family was being held up until he robbed the bank subverted later when you discover his family doesn't exist, and he was lying all along. The episode ends on a cliffhanger since he took Mac hostage. The first episode of the following seasons reveals that he does have a family, they just weren't in any danger (since he was the mastermind behind it all).
Another episode of CSI: New York has two young boys who were trying to get enough money to pay their mother's rent. They ended up being robbed by a much less sympathetic bank robber who was casing the bank they robbed and shot one of them to steal the money. He ends up being run over in his escape attempt when the CSIs catch up with him.
Another episode had the daughter of a bitterly estranged couple, desperate to escape the pain and torment of living in the middle of such a relantionship, rob her parents so she could run away with her boyfriend (who helped her with the robbery). She never intended for her father to die, it was his wife who killed him, and even she comes off as sympathetic as the husband was willing to destroy his company, bankrupting her, their daughter, and his best friend/business partner, just to spite the wife.
Leverage: In the episode "The Bank Job", a father and son attempt to rob a bank in order to pay off some meth dealers who are holding the mother hostage. Luckily, the Leverage team was in the middle of conning a corrupt judge with a deposit box in the bank when this all went down.
Sam leaped into a masked bank robber, who with his two brothers were trying to steal exactly the amount their pa needed to pay off the mortgage to the same bank.
Sam leaped into a man who, along with his friend, robbed a church in order to pay for treatment for his friend's daughter's treatment for fever (which his friend's wife had died of). The church refused to give them any money from the donations as "They said we would spend it all on rum."
One of the last seasons of Stargate SG-1 had an episode where the team gated into a museum, were quickly considered Terrorists, and had to pretend to be taking hostages and acting the part before they could fix the gate and return to Earth.
In Orange Is The New Black, many of the inmates are depicted this way, resorting to crime due to a need to make money ( Taystee), to keep from becoming a victim of organized crime ( Red), or for an honest mistake ( Yoga Jones), to point out a few.
A lot of socially conscious Gangsta Rap would explain this in bleak gritty detail, usually by rappers who would put it in proper context. Rappers like Ice-T, Ice Cube, and 2pac are mostly known for their justified crime tales, like the two hip-hop quotes from above.
Probably about half of all folk songs ever.
Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" is one of the best examples.
King David entering the holy temple to eat the "showbread" - consecrated loaves that only priests are allowed to eat - along with his starving men. The priests allow him to do it, but it's still a violation of Mosaic law. Jesus recounts this incident as a Take That to the "law-abiding" Pharisees
Among the legendary stories of the wise Japanese judge Ooka Tadasuke is one where a man out of work sneaks into a rice warehouse and steals just enough rice to feed his family for the week. He intends to replace it when he gets a job.
Montoya in Dino Attack RPG was a small-time criminal who was really only in it because he was trying to provide for his girlfriend (who is implied to be a waitress). After One Last Job goes wrong they run off and make a new life. In fact really the biggest crimes he's shown to commit are driving potentially stolen vehicles and covering for his partners (which granted is still illegal but it seems pretty small when you consider said partners guilty of theft and cold-blooded murder). The one time he did attempt to kill someone, it was the assassin that he was rightfully angry at for the brutal murder of all but one of his partners and employer.
The music-theatre piece Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake) by Kurt Weill. Severin is driven by stavation to rob a grocery store. Police officer Olim debates with himself whether to cut Severin some slack. He does, and more than that.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas includes references to this, including one instance where Sweet outright says that he and Carl robbed people at gunpoint for the money for both their mother's lifesaving operation and to put their sister through college.
In fact, the whole plot of San Andreas employs this trope, as CJ involves himself in many dangerous, morally questionable activities (stealing cars to fund a dealership, infiltrating Area 69, robbing a mob-owned casino) in order to rescue his brother from prison and his family/neighborhood from internal and external destruction.
Played with in Ace Attorney with Phantom Thief Mask*DeMasque. Why does he steal? To support his wife's shopping habit. Since he is afraid she'll leave him if he's not as rich as he says he is, he hasn't considered just telling her to cut down on the spending sprees. When the wife does find out how her husband got the money and why he did the crimes, she basically tells him not to worry about spending so much money on her because she will love him no matter what.
In the fourth game, Drew Misham, a starving artist, decides to use his daughter's artistic talents to create forgeries in order to support them both.
Dragon Age brings us the casteless dwarves. Due to their ancestry, these dwarves are disallowed legitimate jobs and segregated from the main population. As such, they're usually forced into some form of criminality just to feed themselves. Towards the end of Origins, if you help Prince Bhelen become king he abolishes the caste system, freeing every dwarf including casteless to do what they want.
The city-nation of Champa in Golden Sun: The Lost Age is driven to piracy when the world upheaval of the plot ruins their fishing waters, the only reliable resource they had (there's a master blacksmith and an ancient Magitek forge, but no workable ore). There's indicated to be some reprieve after Briggs finds an island cave full of treasures, but thirty years later they've returned to piracy.
Mass Effect 2 features Commander Shepard teaming up with Cerberus, the terrorist organization s/he fought in the first game (and would fight again in the third) because something needed to be done about the Collectors, and none of the legitimate authorities were willing. It is rightly pointed out that what s/he is doing could potentially be called "treason" and result in his/her trial and execution. S/He does it anyway.
Pekka from Fairy Dust has long worked for the Amicale and still dabbles in illicit activities, but goes farther and farther out of his way to protect his surrogate grandchild from them.
In Worm, most of the Undersiders are this, as a result of their social situation, the need to take care of family, their powers, or their upbringing.
The Meridell/Darigan war in Neopets starts out looking like the evil overlord Darigan and his people are coming for peaceful Meridell's magic orb and want it at any cost, just because they can. Except that as it turns out, the orb originally belonged to Darigan and was stolen from him by Meridell, and he wants his property returned. As it turned out, more than a few players agreed with him in the end.
Scott Lang from The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes helped Crossfire rob banks to pay for the medical treatment of Scott's daughter, Cassie. Some time after Cassie got cured of her disease, Crossfire kidnapped her to make Scott pay him a share of the stolen money. This prompted Scott to steal Hank Pym's Ant-Man suit so he could quickly pull off a solo bank heist.
A man has a loved one dying from cancer. The pharmacist holds the cure but is charging ten times the cost of the drug. Try as he may, the man can only gather half the money the pharmacist demands. The pharmacist refuses to budge. Should the man steal the drug? Why (not)?