Trading Bars for Stripes

When Pete was only in the seventh grade, he stabbed a cop.
He's real R.A. material and he was glad to swap
His switchblade and his old zip gun
For a bayonet and a new M-1!
Tom Lehrer, "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier"

A character is currently locked up in prison either serving out a considerable sentence, awaiting execution, or is on trial facing the former two. The judge or some other government official offers them a choice: they can suffer their punishment or join up with the military.

For this trope to apply, the character in question must already be in legal custody and the only option for freedom/absolution is military service. Unlike the Boxed Crook, they have to serve at least a full tour of duty to earn their pardon rather than go on a single Suicide Mission.

Unlike Recruiting the Criminal, they're recruiting a caught rather than free criminal. For extra empathy points, the "criminal" is an innocent who wants to Clear My Name... and the government is perfectly willing to abuse that desperation.

May overlap with Army of Thieves and Whores and Legion of Lost Souls. Also a subtrope of Consequence Combo, as you either fight for The Government and clear your record, or do time.


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    Comic Books 
  • An extreme example in Astérix: A soldier recalls how he was given the choice of crucifixion or being assigned to Corsica.
    "You know the army. You ask for one thing and they do the opposite."
  • Special Forces has Felony, an 18-year-old delinquent who was got to choose between a long prison term and military service. The series takes place during the Iraq War, but the fact that this is an unusual practice for the time is mentioned—Felony would never have gotten the offer if it weren't for a recruiting officer at his wits' end trying to make a quota.
  • In Truth: Red, White, and Black, one of the black test subjects for the Super Soldier serum was Maurice Canfield, a young man with a moneyed background and strong socialist leanings. When he was arrested for his part in a riot, his family's reputation allowed him the option to join the military rather than serve jail time. Implicitly, were it not for this incident he would have used his money to avoid the draft altogether.
  • This is the premise of the DCU's Suicide Squad. Convicted supercriminals are offered a choice: serve their time in Belle Reeve or the like, or join a crew running a Suicide Mission on behalf of the US government. If they survive and succeed, they regain their freedom. Ironically, when this rather illegal arrangement was revealed, the team's organizer was arrested for war crimes and given the same offer herself.
  • Hunter's Hellcats, a feature in DC's Our Fighting Forces, was a pretty direct riff on The Dirty Dozen, a WWII special forces unit made up of soldiers convicted of various crimes. In this case, the cons' expertise was usually limited to the stuff they were already good at before they were drafted—Snake Oil, for instance, was a con man who also happened to be fluent in six languages, including German and Japanese.
  • Also directly inspired by The Dirty Dozen, an issue of Tomahawk saw the title character assigned to lead a six-man team of infamous criminals pressed into service for the Continental Army. At first, each plotted to kill Tomahawk and escape (and two of them actually tried it). Three of them died on the ensuing mission, each in such a heroic fashion that the remaining three vowed to be good guys from that point on.

    Fan Works 
  • The Ranma ½ fanfic "Adulthood of a Modern Dynasty" has a Jerk Ass named Kamajirou who shows up early on. He turns up later as part of the trainees for the newly formed Anything Goes Task Force. When asked what he's doing here, he explains he committed crimes, but the judge offered him a commuted sentence if he agreed to join up with the Japanese military.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic/Ciaphas Cain crossover "Blueblood: Hero of Equestria" many of the 1st Night Guard Regiment were recruited in this manner due to lack of volunteers (what with the whole swearing allegiance to the Princess that used to be Nightmare Moon). Most notably Captain Blitzkrieg of the pegasus company, who is fanatically loyal to Luna for saving him from life in prison.
  • Fanon implies this to be the case with Walter "Doc" Hartford in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. The series covered almost nothing about his background, Word of God says he enlisted "reluctantly," and seeing as the man is a first-rate Con Artist and the best computer hacker in the known galaxy, it was easy enough to draw the conclusion.
  • Red Fire, Red Planet:
    • Norigom, the Nausicaan operations officer of the IKS mupwI', was conscripted from Rura Penthe on a recommendation from Ambassador Alexander Rozhenko.note 
    • Meromi Riyal, the Orion first officer, made a deal with the House of Chel'toK. She gives them five years' service in the House fleet, and if she survives she gets a full pardon and citizenship. She tries to renege, they hand her over to Imperial Security, who want her head (literally).

  • Rambo: First Blood Part II sees the title hero being released from prison on the condition that he complete a mission for the US government to find American prisoners still being held in Vietnam.
  • Played with during the first Police Academy film. Carey Mahoney only joins the police academy (rather than the military) because it was that or jail time.
  • In Blood In Blood Out, Paco joins the Marines instead of going to prison. This happens when the police arrest him after taking part in the assault on the rival gang that sees their leader getting murdered by his brother Miklo.
  • In Private Benjamin, one of the other trainees in boot camp was apparently this trope. After she flipped off the drill sergeant behind her back (during the typical "first day at training" scene), sarge says that she'll soon wish she'd chosen Attica.
  • In Aliens, Smartgun partners Pvt. Drake and Pvt. Vasquez both were given the chance to join the Colonial Marine Corps out of juvenile prison instead of serving a long sentence for unmentioned crimes.
  • Part of the back-story of the hero in the movie Bobby Z. After some time in juvie, he did a "court mandated stint in the Marines" where he gets a medal and a dishonorable discharge.
  • The 1927 silent film with Laurel and Hardy Duck Soup had the duo in a similar predicament much like the scenario described below in the Real Life section. Police were rounding up vagrants to fight forest fires; Laurel and Hardy run inside a mansion to hide from them. By the end of the film, they get chased out, end up in the clutches of the authorities and are sent to fight fires.
  • In Posse, the lead character was sentenced by a judge to lifetime enlistment in the Army. In real life, this is not only impossible under under U.S. law but pretty ridiculous.
  • In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine and Sabertooth are sentenced to execution because of some trouble Sabertooth got them into. Of course, it doesn't work, and Col. Striker recognizes them as mutants because of it. They're given the choice of life in prison or joining his black ops mutant group to work on his vanity projects. They choose the latter, though Wolverine later defects without any real consequence.

  • A variation on this is implemented in A Song of Ice and Fire with the Night's Watch, which guards the massive Wall at the edge of the known world against threats from beyond. Since the Watch is perpetually low on men, many thieves, rapists, murderers and other criminals in Westeros are often offered a choice: face their punishment, or "take the black" and join the Night's Watch for life.
  • Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium novel West of Honor. After Harlan Slater's father dies he tries to run the family ranch but doesn't know all of the legal procedures he has to follow. When the government tries to take possession of the ranch he resists and is arrested. The judge on the case is an old friend of his father and arranges to get him into the CoDominium Military Academy. Harlan ends up as an officer in the CoDominium Marines.
  • Atonement: Robbie Turner gets falsely accused of having raped a 15-year-old girl and is sent to prison. He's given the choice to join the army and invade WWII Europe. His lover Cecilia promises to wait for him. Both of them die before ever seeing each other again.
  • In 1632 series Mike Stearns and James Nichols bond over having this in common. Mike avoided jail for his youthful offenses by joining the army. James was given a choice between going to Vietnam or going to jail. James admits, though, that he can't resent the judge for the ultimatum, since he probably would have ended up as a gang member otherwise, instead of eventually becoming a successful surgeon.
  • Animal Mother in The Short-Timers, a Vietnam War era novel by Gustav Hasford, was given a choice between prison and the Marine Corps. He came to regret his choice.
    "Back in Queens I took me a ride in this Lincoln Continental. It was a beautiful machine. The judge gave me a choice between the Crotch and hard time in a stone hotel. So I became a mercenary. I should have gone to prison, New Guy. There's less humping."
  • In the Ciaphas Cain novel The Last Ditch, Cain mentions his strong suspicion that this trope is the reason Corporal Magot is in the Imperial Guard. (Though she can't have done anything too bad, since she didn't get dumped in a penal legion.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager Tom Paris was recruited by Captain Janeway from a prison for a dangerous mission into a hazardous nebula. Played with in that to the characters it was supposed to be a downplayed Boxed Crook situation (help with one specific mission, and you'll get help with your sentence), but then Voyager ended up stuck on the other side of the galaxy, and 'help with one mission' ended up becoming 'pilot and all-around expert for seven years straight'. By the time they got back his sentence had apparently become a non-issue, probably because he'd originally been jailed for involvement in terrorist attacks against the Cardassians, whom the Federation were at war with for much of Voyager's sojourn in the Delta Quadrant.
  • The TV series Garrison's Gorillas chronicled the adventures of a group of convicts recruited into the U.S. Army by the offer of a post-war parole. Commanded by West Point graduate, Lt. Garrison, the "Gorillas" functioned as commandos behind Nazi lines.
  • Comes up occasionally in JAG, usually as a defendant's backstory. Coates was the most prominent example.
  • Parodied in The Goodies episode "Scoutrageous". Tim is arrested for being a scout, but is let off by the judge because he went to a good school. Deeply shamed, he joins the only organisation left for people like him: the Salvation Army (which, in the world of The Goodies, functions as an actual armed force).
  • Space: Above and Beyond has an unusual example: Cooper Hawkes ended up getting arrested for a fight with a group of thugs who had tried to hang him in an alleyway for being an InVintro. The Judge ruled that he should be sent to the Marine Corps... to receive a commission as a Second Lieutenant and training as a space fighter pilot, as opposed to being an enlisted rifleman.
  • In Power Rangers S.P.D., this is how Jack and Z join the team. In this particular case, they were minor criminals, and Cruger secretly knew they got their powers from the same experiment that gave the other existing Rangers theirs.
  • In Person of Interest, John Reese implied in one episode that this was how he ended up in the Army, a career which he apparently enjoyed enough to reenlist in, seeing as he ultimately left the Army as a mid-ranked Sergeant in Special Forces, and later went on to join the CIA.

  • Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA" from the album of same name: "Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man".
  • Tom Lehrer's "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier", as quoted above.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: Since there's no shortage of capital crimes in the Imperium of Man, criminals sentenced to death are often given the choice to join a penal legion rather than being executed. Usually they're used as Cannon Fodder, but The Last Chancers novel series concerns a legion composed of convicts with skills that make them more useful (for instance, the viewpoint character is ex-Imperial Guard).
  • One of the old standards for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Either an individual character (usually a rogue) is paroled by the justice system to serve under another player to justify them going along with an alignment-inappropriate plot, or the entire party is pressed into service as penance for a crime by the local sheriff (said crime possibly being a frame job specifically to get them to work for free).
    • Can be used as a form of Rail Roading if employed to force a party that's been wandering back on track.
  • Under some rules, characters in En Garde! will be sentenced to serve in a frontier regiment as punishment for their crimes, or as a condition for having a death sentence commuted.
  • BattleTech has the Draconis Combine's Legions of Vega. They have the reputation for this in comparison to the bushido-oriented regular army units. This is subverted, however, with the Ghost Regiments, which, while primarily made up of Yakuza units, are actually cases of Recruiting the Criminal, playing off the Even Evil Has Standards trope, particularly when the Clans arrive.

    Video Games 
  • This is how Elliot Salem of Army of Two joined the Army. He was in a gang as teenager and decided to enlist rather than serve time in jail.
  • StarCraft: Terran soldiers tend to be "neurally resocialized" convicts. Tychus Findley is a specific example who used to be a thief and an old friend of Raynor's, who was on ice for years before Emperor Mengsk thawed him out and fitted him with armor that would kill him if removed so he could infiltrate the rebellion and assassinate Kerrigan. It should be noted that the convicts don't always get a choice in the matter, as demonstrated in the Frontline comic which features a resocced political dissident.
    • The novel Liberty's Crusade has a female Marine assigned to be the protagonist's bodyguard. She's eventually revealed to be a former serial killer who flayed her victims alive with a kitchen knife; when she witnesses firsthand what the Zerg do to their victims, the stress starts to unravel her neural resocialization. She loses it completely when she gets trapped by Zerg and goes to town on them with a knife until she ends up Half The Woman She Used To Be.
  • In Neverwinter Nights 2, your character is given control of a militia unit. If you want you can set the recruitment policy to 'give criminals amnesty if they'll join up', which results in more troops but worse discipline.
  • Appears in Dragon Age: Origins with the Grey Wardens' Right of Conscription. In fact, Duncan (the current Warden Commander of Ferelden) and Daveth (one of the Warden recruits) were both recruited this way, to escape being executed for murder and thievery, respectively. Can also be the backstory of the player character.
    • Can also be invoked by the player character to recruit Teryn Loghain instead of executing him, as well as Nathaniel Howe (who tries to kill the PC to avenge his father) and Anders (an apostate) in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening.
    • In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the real Blackwall conscripted Tom Rainier this way after he and his men assassinated a noble family. Blackwall was killed by Darkspawn while he and Tom were gathering the blood needed for Tom's Joining. Tom, feeling guilty about his past crimes and inspired by Blackwall, took up the Warden's name.

  • S.S.D.D has the faction known as the CORE using convicted conscripts. The main character of the time travel arcs Tessa was conscripted for punching a police officer.
  • One Terminal Lance strip features a Marine who wanted to go to prison, but was sent into the military because the judge didn't like him.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Simpsons, it turns out that Principal Skinner, whose backstory had long had him as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, actually stole the real, MIA-and-presumed-dead Sgt. Skinner's identity on returning home. He was really a juvenile delinquent who had snatched a purse and was caught after (literally) having a run in with a judge, and was offered a choice between the Army, jail, or apologizing to the judge and old lady.
    Skinner: 'Course if I'd known there was a war going on, I probably would've apologized.
  • The Smart Guy Alec in Exosquad was a petty thief before joining Exofleet to clear his record.
  • The Terrible Thunder Lizards (a segment of Eek The Cat) were former military special forces, who were allowed their freedom on the condition that they hunted down the humans, Bill and Scooter. Their origins though play with this trope in that they were imprisoned after being falsely accused of treason. (Their backstory had the Thunder Lizards working with an enemy Thugasaur to survive behind enemy lines. They were accused of treason, which they didn't do, and were incarcerated until the start of the series.)

    Real Life 
  • The penal units of any armies.
  • In World War II, other countries would allow criminals to join in lieu of going to prison such as England, France, Germany, China, and Japan.
  • In the USSR during the Great Patriotic War, inmates of The Gulag, mostly real small time criminals, were offered pardon in exchange for military service in "Shtratbat" penal battalions while others were drafted into service. They could be deemed rehabilitated and sent to a normal Red Army unit if they finished their sentence, received a combat injury, or distinguished themselves with extraordinary heroic deeds in battle. In most cases, the chance of redemption was just propaganda since service could be 'trampler' duty via clearing enemy minefields by walking over them, infantry service tended to be Suicide Missions one after the other against the enemy's toughest defenses (possibly while decisively under-equipped) with men reaching the end of their infantry service likely being transferred for trampler duty, and air force penal battalions had its soldiers be particularly unlikely of getting injured and surviving it while pilots which usually were just kept on until killed, and gunners would have the same reassignment when risking finishing their service like penal infantrymen. Some of the vory v zakone also joined; since this sort of thing violated their code, they weren't accepted back if they survived and returned, resulting in a post-WWII period of "Bitch Wars"note  in the gulags.
  • The US made use of this trope during the First and Second World War and even as late as the Vietnam War. It was not unusual for judges to offer this deal to those of draft age. Nowadays, this is more of a Discredited Trope, as the US military normally bars those with a criminal history from joining, even if they were adjudicated as youthful offenders. Those with a criminal record can't join the US military unless they obtain a hard-to-get waiver. This page on even cites various official military regulations that bar any such enlistments.
    • The recent economic recession in the US has caused an influx of young people showing up at recruitment offices. As a result, the military can afford to be much more picky about who they allow in, and has raised their standards accordingly.
  • The Ottoman Empire had bashi-bazouks, a type of irregular soldier dating back to the 1300s. They were recruited from criminals as well as the homeless and vagrants. These irregulars did not receive a regular salary; their pay was solely whatever loot they could find or steal.
  • The UK Mutiny Act of 1701/1702 stated that criminals as well as debtors, referred to as "persons of blemished character or unsettled mode of life", could be released from punishment upon agreeing to enlist.
  • The 36. Waffen-SS Grenadier Division, "Dirlewanger". Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger was a Nazi mad political scientist and Boxed Crook who proposed to form an SS unit from arrested poachers (later expanded to include all kinds of arrested criminals, including rapists, psychopaths, child molesters and murderers). Eventually, Dirlewanger became the commander of his own division, an Army of Thieves and Whores recruited from prisons and jails and infamous for cruelty. It was abhorred even within the Waffen SS, to say nothing of the people in the areas it operated. SS-General Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, who did not hesitate to spill the blood of hundreds of thousands in occupied Poland, once threatened Dirlewanger personally just because he was too disgusted with him and his army of criminals.
  • Konnakolmonen, 3th Jäger Company of the Pori Brigade, Finnish Army. Those conscripts with criminal records, antisocial tendencies or substance abuse problems are assigned there.
  • The Musta Nuoli (Black Arrow), 21th Autonomous Battalion of the Finnish Army, commanded by Colonel Nikke Pärmi. It was recruited amongst the felons in Finnish prisons. Colonel Pärmi said once now all killers and murderers are in the occupation in which they have education.
  • In Colin Powell's autobiography, he discusses this trope and how difficult it was to deal with, and how things have changed since the Vietnam era.
  • The spirit of this trope is still used in certain prisons around the United States. Instead of doing time, you are given ONE chance (and only one chance) to go through an extremely intense boot camp-like training from the moment you step off the prison transport from the courtroom. They put you through the wringer. You will sleep when told to sleep, eat when told to eat, eat how they tell you to eat, go to the bathroom when they tell you to and for how long, put you through intense physical training that the regular army at one point considered to be normal, but now considers to be inhumane. Basically turn you into a mindless grunt. If you can survive about 3 months of this, the state will deem you worthy of returning to normal society, and your crimes will be absolved. If you slip up even once, you will have to serve your sentence. You can generally only do this if you were sent to prison for a non-violent crime in the first place though. To put it simply: it would be easier to deal with life in prison than it is to survive this training, but if you do, you're a free man.
  • In a variation of this trope, many states in the US have been using prisoners to help fight wildfires. They only accept prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes and the work is extremely demanding and unpleasant but it still beats normal prison life.