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Boxed Crook

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"If you accept, your sentence will be reduced after we drive off the hobgoblin horde. Or, you can refuse and pray to the Twelve Gods that their catapults don't hit the prison tower while you're still locked inside."

Prisoners facing very serious punishment (being guilty of the crime is optional) are approached by a mysterious figure and offered their freedom, provided they do a little favor first. The mysterious figure is offering the pardon for a good reason, usually: he wants to tap into some highly-talented specialties, it is likely a Suicide Mission, and he needs a heaping helping of Plausible Deniability.

Expect to see "insurance" deployed, such as an Explosive Leash. If a lot of so-boxed crooks are assembled into a single unit, that may be the start of an Army of Thieves and Whores.

May stem from You All Meet in a Cell. Sub-Trope of Leonine Contract and Recruiting the Criminal. A related trope is Trading Bars for Stripes (your prison sentence is commuted to military service) and another is Recruited from the Gutter (working for someone who saved you from a crappy life). Compare Condemned Contestant, Indispensable Scoundrel, Trapped in Villainy, Forced Creativity, and Win Your Freedom. Specifically scientific examples fall under Doctor von Turncoat.

When the prisoner's end of the deal is to testify against their alleged accomplices who are separately offered the same deal, it's the Prisoner's Dilemma instead, but may overlap if testimony requires a mission to obtain proof, or if going free would actually be dangerous without a benevolent mentor.)


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Mugai-Ryu in Blade of the Immortal are all death row criminals who are buying back their lives by collecting Itto-Ryu heads.
  • The main plot of Cyber City Oedo 808 involves taking three criminals with life sentences, putting explosive collars on them and sending them out to stop other criminals. If they succeed in their missions, they get time removed from their sentences (though all three have sentences of over 200 years, and one of them was once penalized with extra time for disobeying orders during a mission). Their goal is to eventually work off their entire prison sentence, though they hadn't come close yet by the end of the series.
  • Death Note:
    • Lind L. Tailor is set to impersonate L on a broadcast to try to see how Kira will kill him on the day of his execution. Later on, L proposes having a criminal write names in the Death Note and see if he dies 13 days later to determine whether the 13-day rule is fake, and pardoning the criminal if he or she survived, but gets killed before he can enact the plan.
    • Aiber and Weddy are a pair of mercenary criminals (a con man and a master thief, respectively) hired by L during the Yotsuba Arc to assist in the investigation. Aiber mentions in passing that L has enough evidence on him to get him life in prison.
  • Dragon Ball Super: In the Tournament of Power arc, Universe 7 is in a bind and needs a tenth fighter for the Tournament. In desperation, Goku suggests... Frieza, who is currently dead in Earth's Hell. However, Fortuneteller Baba is capable of resurrecting the dead for one day, so Frieza could participate on their team. Frieza agrees after learning that if he doesn't, all of Universe 7 will be erased, Hell included, which would end his existence forever. The same will hold true if Universe 7 loses, so it isn't in Frieza's interest to betray the team either. He does demand that, if they win, they will resurrect him fully with the Dragon Balls. It's unclear whether Goku truly intended to keep that promise, but in the end Whis does resurrect him as a reward for helping Universe 7 win.
  • In the Final Fantasy V OVA, Rouge the pirate is offered a pardon in exchange for helping the heroes on their quest.
  • Argo Gulski in G Gundam, a former Space Pirate, was caught and imprisoned by Neo Russia, who gave him the ultimatum of fighting as the country's Gundam Fighter for the freedom of his crew, or live-imprisonment for the lot of them. As an added bonus, he has an explosive charge permanently attached to his chest, making escape for him totally impossible.
  • Triela's handler Hillshire in Gunslinger Girl is sentenced to death when he finds out what the social welfare agency's done to the girl he brought them for treatment, and lashes out at them. One of the other handlers, Jean, approaches him in his cell with an offer of becoming Triela's fratello, the only way for him to safe guard Triela.
  • In the Gunsmith Cats OVA, Cowboy Cop Bill Coleman approaches Bounty Hunters Rally and May at their gun shop and asks them to help him with his investigation while insinuating that he'll arrest them for possession of Class III firearms and explosives if they refuse. He promises that in exchange for their cooperation the A.T.F. will look the other way and provide them with a license so they can reopen the shop.
  • The premise of Hell's Paradise: Jigokuraku lies in this, with a group of death row convicts offered to be pardoned by the Shogun if they find the elixir of life on Shinsenkyo, with each of them accompanied by a Yamada Asaemon executioner who will kill them if they step out of line.
  • Kindergarten Wars: Most of Kindergarten Noir's staff is made up of various criminals that are roped into protecting the kindergarten in return for lighter sentences. None of them are particularly complaining and genuinely enjoy taking care of the kids, even if they're counting their days until freedom.
  • In King of Thorn manga, the government recruits a hacker this way. The fact that he wants to take revenge on the infiltrated facility's system administrator certainly helps.
  • Lyrical Nanoha: The Time-Space Administration Bureau has a track record of giving defeated opponents job offers as an alternative to prison time. The jobs are often active-duty combat positions where crooks may wind up facing universe-destroying Lost Logia or armies of cyborg super soldiers and the like, but many are also basically community service roles working for civilian organizations like the Saint Church. In contrast to many similar arrangements, the ex-convicts enjoy, take pride in and do well in their jobs, and their superiors, for the most part, trust them completely. (It helps that much of the time, the crimes in question involved duress or deception, and that Nanoha is skilled at befriending them.) At least 15 characters have gone through this program by the end of StrikerS.note 
  • In the My-HiME manga, Nao joins Haruka's Ori-Hime unit so that her rule-breaking will be ignored. Mai questions whether Haruka will keep that promise.
  • In One Piece, we have the Shichibukai: seven infamous pirates given pardons by the World Government in return for their service, which is spent crushing revolutions or related regime change or dealing with other pirates. While they're often derided as "Government Dogs", many of them actually have no compassion for the World Government; at least two members outright hate it, and all of them are insanely powerful, so calling them that within earshot is not a good idea. There's only one member who seems truly loyal to World Government, that being Bartholomew Kuma, but that's another story...
    • The Hellhole Prison of Impel Down is home to Shiryuu of the Rain, a former Head Jailer whose habit of killing his charges landed him on death row in the deepest levels of the hellish prison. During a unprecedentedly massive prison riot, he's released to help control it, his sentence postponed for the duration of this second chance. Unfortunately for the staff of Impel Down, his cooperation lasts only until he regains his sword, after which he proceeds to make things much worse by cutting through the guards and communication system before escaping with Blackbeard.
    • A humorous example is Curly Dadan, head of a bandit gang. Vice-Admiral Garp is willing to overlook her crimes, but only on the condition that she looks after Portgas D. Ace, and later Monkey D. Luffy. While Dadan does grow attached to the D. brothers, she considers the hardships from raising them to be worse than any prison sentence.
    • Interesting example with Oimo and Kashi, giants who were part of a very powerful and dangerous pirate crew. A century before the story began, the group was forced to disband when their co-captains Dorry and Brogy got into an argument and began a fight to the death on a certain island to show who was right. Fifty years later, neither of the captains had come back to their home island of Elbaf, so Oimo and Kashi set sail back to the island where they were fighting, but were captured by Marines along the way. They were told that their captains had been captured and imprisoned, but a bargain was made with them: if they would work for the World Government for a hundred years (since giants live to be 300), all four of them could go free. They agreed… but the World Government lied to them. And not about setting them free when their time was up: for the fifty years that the two of them had waited on Elbaf, and another fifty after that while they worked for the government, their captains were still fighting on that island, over 73,000 duels that all ended in draws. And the Straw Hat Pirates happened to visit that island on their journey, and then they came to where the giants were guarding the gate. When Usopp persuades them to tell their story (after the others had beaten them), he tells them the truth. It takes some time to convince them that they've been betrayed, but Usopp knows so much about Dorry and Brogy and was so emotional about how their valor had inspired him that Oimo and Kashi finally believed him. Cue a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
      Oimo: You bastards...
      Kashi: How dare you...
      Both: LIE TO US?!
  • In The Seven Deadly Sins, the titular heroes are all this. Each one has been labeled and branded by a symbol marking their specific "Sin." Each one is then given the chance to atone for their crimes by serving the great kingdom of Liones. They became heroes and answerable to the King himself alone.
    • Meliodas the Dragon's Sin of Wrath, the captain, and once in a moment of pure rage destroyed an entire country that he was meant to protect after a powerful villain kills the woman he loved.
    • Diane, the Serpent's Sin of Envy, is a 30ft tall giantess and accused of being envious of humans she was hired to help and betrayed them before being captured. In truth, she was the one betrayed and she killed the humans who were near her in retribution.
    • Ban, the Fox's Sin of Greed, is an immortal thief who became that way after slaying the Holy Guardian of the Fairy Forest and drinking the elixir of eternal life. In truth, he and the guardian fell in love with each other. He only drank the elixir of immortality after a giant demon attacked, fatally wounding both of them and Elaine, the guardian, takes the elixir and gives it to him by one last kiss. He never contested the charges against him.
    • King, the Bear's Sin of Sloth, is the Fairy King and Elaine's elder brother. He is punished for the crimes of one of his friends, who became a deranged killer of humans after a human he befriended captured him and ripped off their wings before King, who during that time had amnesia for these centuries, finally kills his friend.
    • Gowther the Goat's Sin of Lust, is charged with the rape and murder of Princess Nadja Liones, elder sister to the current king, years ago. In truth, Gowther and Nadja fell in love, but Nadja had a weak heart. After consummating their love for the first time, her heart finally gave out but she died happy. The naive Gowther, not understanding when Nadja told him they had similar hearts (kind and loving), takes out his own magic heart his maker created for him, and tried to bring her back to life by inserting it into her chest. Guards arrive at the scene with Gowther covered in the woman's blood and her chest ripped open.
    • Escanor the Lion's Sin of Pride, is a pariah for having freakishly superhuman strength that fluctuates depending on the time of day (he's a total wimp at night). He broke his brother's arm with one hand as a 3-year old, and his kingdom has feared him ever since.
  • In Soul Eater, witches Eruka, Risa and Arisa are all captured and forced to connect Spartio to the Book of Eibon.
  • The manga Sukeban Deka and its anime and live action incarnations revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • Witch Hunter Robin:
    • A hacker who broke into the Solomon mainframe is held captive in their HQ as their tech-guy. (It should be noted that this has happened in the real world.)
    • There are some witches who refuse to use their powers, only to have their lives systematically destroyed by Solomon and forced to use their powers (illegally) to survive. Then they're arrested and either drafted into witch hunting or used as a blood farm for producing anti-magic.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, there's Dr. Collector, a genius who was convicted of several murders (probably based on Hannibal Lecter) who aids the government in solving other murders. As a result, he is allowed to compete occasionally in the Pro League (with armed supervision, of course), and actually does a very decent job against the reigning champion The D. That is, until The D unveils his previously unknown Ultimate D Card...
  • Hiei and Kurama from YuYu Hakusho help Yusuke with his missions as part of their probation. Kurama was at worst an Anti-Villain who is happy to help, whereas Hiei is simply biding his time until he can escape to the Demon World...or so he says.

    Comic Books 
  • Many of the soldiers in Marvel/Epic's Alien Legion are this.
  • The Nick Spencer run of Ant-Man uses a humorous but semi-realistic version of this to explain why gay android supervillain Machinesmith is working a dead-end job in Miami. Machinesmith was offered parole in exchange for using his skills to help SHIELD hack into Latverian computers. After doing so, he was released and sent to Florida and has to report regularly to a parole officer. Scott Lang (Ant-Man) offers him a job at his new security company, which Machinesmith accepts since it was an improvement over his previous one (being beaten up by kids at Avengers-themed birthday parties).
  • In the Spin-Off of Gargoyles called Gargoyles: Bad Guys, Hunter, Fang, Dingo, Matrix, and Yama are formed into the Redemption Squad. This was originally supposed to be an animated spinoff, but the show got cancelled.
  • Battle: "The Rat Pack" were a group of convicts released from prison to undertake suicide missions in WWII.
  • Marvel Comics blatantly stole the idea of The Dirty Dozen for its war book Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen. It's in the name — can't get much more blatant than that.
  • Grimm Fairy Tales: This is how Robyn Locksley (a.k.a. 'Robyn Hood') is recruited into the Realm Knights organisation. So long as she stays off the radar and operates within the parameters given in her missions, she is allowed to stay out of jail.
  • Hunter's Hellcats: At the outbreak of World War II, homicide detective Ben Hunter was drafted and sent overseas. Promoted to Sergeant, he was asked to oversee a special commando force comprised entirely of criminals culled from the Army stockade. The series was very similar in premise to Garrison's Gorillas, which premiered six months after the comic was first published.
  • Hmmm... approached by mysterious figure... Check. Government offering amnesty for past wrongs... check. Deniability... check. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?
  • This is how the Legion of Super-Heroes villain group the Fatal Five got formed — the Legion offered five dangerous super-criminals pardons if they would help save Earth from the menace of a sun-eater. Unfortunately, once they'd been thrown together, they decided they liked the idea of teaming up to commit crime. Oops.
  • Kurt Busiek's short-lived The Liberty Project is an earlier example of super-powered criminals in this trope. Unlike most other examples, it's completely above-board, and done at least partly in the hope of rehabilitating the criminals.
  • In Nodwick the party got one quest this way.
    Nodwick: Let me get this straight: you damaged public property and that leads to employment?
    Artax: Odd how that works with governmental entities, isn't it?
  • Zig-zagged in Orange Crows. The young Witch Cierra was exiled from her home in the Orange District to the Wilderness after illicit experimentation on her part destroyed a research lab and injured her best friend Natalie. When her term of exile is up, Cierra is confronted by Natalie (now the head of an elite team of magical enforcers under the Special Witch and Warlock Squad, or S.W.S.) and given the choice to return to the Orange District to undergo a trial that will determine if she's fit to re-join society, or to refuse trial and face immediate execution. Cierra chooses to return, and after spending a day in a holding cell waiting for her trial to begin, she's informed that the trial is over and her citizenship is restored. That's when she discovers she's been remanded to the custody of Natalie's squad, forbidden from seeing her family, and forced to work for the S.W.S. on their dangerous missions if she wants to stay in the District and stay alive.
  • In Paperinik New Adventures, the Evronian Empire has a prison planet named The Well for this exact reason. It's impossible to escape, but it happens that the Empire needs some particularily dirty jobs done, in which case you may get pulled out. This is what happens to Trauma, an evronian super-soldier for whom the prison was originally built. Gorthan recruits him specifically to take care of PK, both for practical reasons, and because Gorthan's heard that PK is fearless, and he wants to put that theory to the test.
  • The Punisher was given one of these offers by a Mafia don who wanted him to keep the old neighborhood safe.
  • Word of God says that this is Rouge's role in Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics) and that she works for G.U.N. to "pay off her debt to society".
  • Spider-Man and X-Factor: Shadowgames has the titular heroes fighting the Shadowforce, a team of convicted criminals who were granted superpowers and special equipment by a secret military operation named Project: Homegrown. Project: Homegrown wasn't supposed to use convicts but General Macauley Sharpe, the head of the project, went beyond the limits of his assignment and had his people grant six convicted felons super powers based on data from various superhero origins including incomplete notes on Captain America's Super-Soldier serum, the gamma radiation test that created The Incredible Hulk and the fate space flight that gave the Fantastic Four their powers.
  • The '80s version of DC Comics' Suicide Squad featured an assortment of supervillains sent on black-ops missions by the government in exchange for pardons. "Suicide Squad" became a very appropriate name due to the nature of their missions and the penalty for refusing to go on them in the first place. This version was featured on Justice League as "Task Force X" (in the comics that's the government's official but seldom-used name for the Squad) in the episode of the same name.
    • Ironically, Amanda Waller, the Squad's boss, ended up becoming a boxed crook herself in Checkmate, where the eponymous organization forced her to loan them her intelligence-gathering and deal-making talents in exchange for overlooking her complicity in the Squad's actions.
  • In Sunfire and Big Hero 6, GoGo Tomago was originally a criminal who was offered freedom in exchange for serving in Japan's state-sponsored superhero team.
  • An incarnation of Marvel Comics' Thunderbolts is as a team of former — and not-so-former — supervillains sent to apprehend superheroes who don't obey the Super Registration Act introduced in the Civil War (2006) Crisis Crossover.
    • A later reinvention has the new recruits coming directly from The Raft a.k.a. Alcatraz for supervillains. This team was created in the hopes of eventually reforming the supervillains. With some already-reformed villains in leadership positions because they're more likely to know when a recruit's faking it.
  • Ultimate Marvel:
    • The team called the Avengers is basically this (not to be confused with the actual Avengers analogue, The Ultimates). Their numbers include Hawkeye and Black Widow, neither of whom are squeaky clean, as well as former super-villain Red Wasp, and, at one point, the Punisher.
    • Ultimate X-Men: All the mutants in Weapon X are forced to do what Wraith orders. This includes Wolverine, the X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, Beast, Iceman, Colossus, Storm) and the other mutants they had before capturing the X-Men (Rogue, Nightcrawler, Juggernaut). The only exception is Sabertooth, who is there by his own free will, as he simply enjoys killing.
  • In the 60s, the British comic Valiant carried a strip called "The Steel Claw" about a rogue scientist who had discovered the secret of invisibility which unfortunately also sent him mad, to the extent that he stole a nuclear weapon and attempted to destroy New York. Upon capture by the British "Shadow Squad" (a fictionalized MI 5) he was given the "offer he could not refuse"; become a secret agent or spend the rest of his life in a cage, where his invisibility would be useless. No prizes for guessing what his answer was.
  • X-Men:
    • The Freedom Force, which is what Mystique's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants became after they offered their services to Valerie Cooper in exchange for pardons from the government. They were able to do a few good deeds (most notably apprehending Magneto) but after a few unpopular incidents like trying to enforce the original Mutant Registration Act, which brought them into conflict with the X-Men and X-Factor, the team fell apart. Especially damaging was that they made a very violent attempt to take down the X-Men in San Francisco, where contrary to the usual "hated and feared by those they protect" situation the X-Men were well-liked by the locals and on good terms with the police...who arrested Freedom Force instead. And Mystique had to go along with that because they were nominally the good guys now. (Cooper decided to hire X-Factor to replace them.)
    • Magik was given this status following the events of the Schism, selected by Cyclops to be a member of the "Extinction Team". There wasn't an offer for release or parole with it — she was only let out of the X-Brig for missions, and her suit had a lethal fail-safe to prevent her from teleporting away. This relaxation of her sentence seemed to have both positive and negative impacts; after gaining new powers from the Phoenix Force, she escaped, purged the Juggernaut's powers from her brother permanently and she remains a supporter of Cyclops and his revolutionary X-Men. (Unfortunately, this didn't help her and Colossus reconcile; it actually made their relationship worse than ever, as he figured out she could have done that at any time and made him keep the Juggernaut powers to teach him a lesson. He has since said that he actually wants to see her dead.)

    Fan Works 
  • Sometimes used in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers fanfics as Doc's backstory. His Mysterious Past was never covered in-series, aside from Word of God saying he signed on "reluctantly." Seeing as Doc is one of the best hackers (if not the best hacker) in the League...
  • In Christian Humber Reloaded, the main character, after turning himself in to the police for murdering Soku and her family, is given the job of hunting down or killing convicts, which he enjoys considerably. The webcomic has a brief scene in which the warden acknowledges that this is a very bad idea.
  • Coby's Choice: After his defeat, Hyouzou is made part of the Ryugyu Kingdom's military forces.
  • The Kim Possible fic "Dark Legacy" features Zorpox temporarily returning to action, to the extent that he kidnaps Drakken, Shego and Monkey Fist to witness his final confrontation with Kim. After Kim has restored Ron’s true self, she takes embarrassing photos of the captured villains and makes it clear that she wants to take a few months off to focus on her relationship with Ron; she will release those photos if she has any missions for the next three months, but before then the three villains will deal with any problems that might require her attention.
  • This trope is familiar to Doctor Who fans, as it is used in many a Doctor/Master fic. (And then it became sort-of-canon in The Eater of Light…)
  • In A.A. Pessimal's exploration of mature entry into the Discworld's Guild of Assassins, The Graduation Class, those who have shown style and inventiveness in murder - unlicenced Assassins operating outside the Guild - are offered Angels. They can, of their own free will, join the Guild and take a training course that graduates them as Assassins and thus regularises the situation. Or else they can be dealt with in the usual way. The story follows the first four women to officially graduate as full Guild members after living interesting lives full of lethal incident to others.
  • Hitman Miami: Chapter 6 has 47 caught by the police for drug dealing, and once the detective realizes he is a hitman, he is offered freedom for assassinating a target. "If you can drop him, we'll drop the charges."
  • In the Worm fanfic, Intrepid, Sophia and Brian both works as Wards rather than go to prison for being a Vigilante with a manslaughter count and Villain respectively.
  • In the Red Jewel Diaries of MGLN Crisis, some of the Numbers who are still imprisoned — Tre, Quattro and Sette, without Uno, who's dead — get a mission from Auris while in captivity. The others are essentially free, but still reporting in for probation hearings, at the start of the main stories.
  • Lucius Malfoy is on the receiving end of an unusual twist on this trope in The Parselmouth of Gryffindor, as he is officially a free man — but at the mercy of Hermione, who calls upon him whenever she needs large amounts of money for a scheme. For a nicer variant, there's also Grindelwald whom Dumbledore makes the Defence Professor in Fourth Year, so that his talent is not wasted, and in the hope that it'll be his first step on the way to redemption.
  • This is literally how SG-13: The Suicide Squad (a Stargate SG-1JAGThe West Wing crossover) begins and its major premise.
  • Zabuza has to work for Konoha as part of his parole in Son of the Sannin after serving his jail sentence for aiding the Uchiha clan in their coup (and just for a bit of irony, the first mission he's sent on is guarding Tazuna). Mei buys his freedom when she goes to hire an army of Konoha ninja to aid in her rebellion during the Time Skip.
  • In The Universiad, the AEON branch of P.O.E.T. contains and weaponises Eldritch Abominations of its own for the Godzilla Threshold-crossing moments when such is the only appropriate response to the situation at hand.
  • In White Devil of the Moon, Sailors Mars and Jupiter, as well as Luna and Mamoru, attack Fate a few times while assuming that she is denying them access to Nanoha for sinister ends. Hayate tells them that assaulting an officer is a severe crime, but they can help the Bureau in lieu of official punishment.
  • XSGCOM: Nirrti becomes this to the SCG/X-COM, her scientific knowledge and expertise in exchange for her life (and a few creature comforts).

    Films — Animation 
  • Chicken Run: Ginger gets Rocky to teach the chickens to fly in exchange for hiding him from the circus he escaped from.
  • Zootopia: Nick Wilde initially helps Judy because she's blackmailing him with evidence of his tax evasion, but becomes genuinely helpful when he discovers that Judy is facing the same kind of species-based prejudice that he's been dealing with all his life.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Animal Kingdom has Detective Roache, a boxed Corrupt Cop, who's... encouraged to assassinate Joshua, who's under witness protection. The person ordering the hit? Joshua's grandmother.
  • Ant-Man: Scott Lang, former burglar, is offered a means of making child support to see his daughter again; become Ant-Man and use his thieving talents to steal technology that poses a threat to world peace. In this case, the offer comes not from the government, but from the original Ant-Man himself.
  • In The Art of the Steal, Samuel Winters (Terence Stamp) is a convicted art thief who has been paroled into the custody of Interpol agent Bick to assist him identifying forgeries.
  • In Between Heaven And Hell, Sam Gifford (Robert Wagner) beats a lieutenant to death after he accidentally machineguns three of his own men. Because he is a Silver Star recipient, at his court martial Gifford is offered the choice of being sent to Leavenworth or being transferred to George Company, a de facto punishment company in a dangerous area of the line. Gifford chooses George Company.
  • Catch Me If You Can, based on the Real Life story of master con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. ends with him getting such a deal from the FBI once the agency realizes his familiarity with forged checks can be put toward more productive use. He still works as an advisor and lecturer for the FBI.
  • In The Charge at Feather River, Col. Kilrain requests Miles Archer to undertake a dangerous mission deep inside Injun Country. However, the only troops he can offer Archer are the current occupants of the guardhouse. Archer accepts command of this Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, which he dubs the Guardhouse Brigade, and attempts to shape them into a competent fighting unit.
  • In The Core, Rat is a young hacker who gets caught violating his parole and is facing some serious jail time. He is offered full pardon (and some other incentives) to help the government cover up the mission. Slight subversion in that his home is raided specifically because they need him. He just happens to be back to his own tricks.
  • In The Deserter, Kaleb is offered a pardon, and his old rank back, if he leads the squad (although he does not want either). Jackson is released from the guardhouse to join the squad.
  • In The Dirty Dozen, the eponymous twelve were all on death row or imprisoned for life for crimes committed while in the Army. Major Reisman offers them a full pardon — if they survive an almost-certain-death mission. Only one of them, Wladislaw, lives to see his freedom.
  • District 13: Leito is first unknowingly recruited by the police and later allies himself with Damien for his own motives.
  • In Eastern Condors, the members of the squad to undertake the suicide mission are all recruited from an Army prison and promised a pardon, U.S. citizenship, and $200,000 if they succeed and survived.
  • In Escape from New York, Air Force One crashes inside the Manhattan penal colony. Prisoner and former war hero Snake Plissken is offered his freedom if he can get the President and a special tape out in under 24 hours.
    • Snake has to go through this again to rescue the current president's daughter in Escape from L.A.. (That turns out to be a bad idea.)
    • Both times, it's not specifically the people but the objects they're carrying. The President in the first film has a tape with the secret of cold fusion on it. The President's daughter in the second film has a controller for a network of EMP satellites.
  • A very unusual example of Executive Meddling in A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" has no clear no motive to go to the town and get involved in the feud. This made TV network executives nervous, so when the film aired on TV, a prologue was filmed: the MWNN is released from prison to restore order to the town. This scene was shot without the permission of Sergio Leone, and without Eastwood's participation. Harry Dean Stanton plays the Prison Governor.
  • Idiocracy: When Joe ends up in the future, he goes to jail for not having a bar code tattoo that every citizen is required to wear. When he escapes and is captured by police, he is sent to the White House, where the President, impressed by his (relatively) greater intelligence, gives him a week to find a solution to crop failures that have been plaguing the country in exchange for a pardon. Joe discovers that crops have been watered with a sports-drink, and forces everybody to start using water. He ends up going back to jail when the company that makes the sports drink collapses, but is given a full pardon when the crops start regrowing.
  • The original The Inglorious Bastards has a bunch of escaped U.S. Army prisoners stumbling across an Allied undercover mission, which they inadvertently foil. To make up for their mistake and secure their release, they take the original crew's place.
  • This is the option given to a captured IRA sniper in The Jackal.
  • The title character in Kagemusha is a thief saved from execution in order to act as a top-secret double for an identical-looking feudal warlord. How could that possibly go wrong?
  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Lara needs help in her government mission to find Pandora's Box. She goes to the Republic of Kazakhstan and recruits Terry Sheridan, an old lover of hers who's in prison there.
  • In Legion (1998), Terry Farrell commands a Dirty Dozen-style team, only to find the enemy are already dead on reaching their target. Turns out a Super-Soldier is being Tested on Humans, and their superiors have set them up to be the test subjects.
  • In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), this is Napoleon Solo's backstory: a Gentleman Thief caught stealing paintings while in the military, and is being used as a spy for the CIA in exchange for avoiding a lengthy prison sentence. It's clear he hates it, especially when he has to team up with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. He risks taking the prison sentence when he and Illya burn research information they've both been ordered to get rather than kill each other, but then Waverly comes along with an offer to join his new organization, U.N.C.L.E.
  • All four protagonists in Mercenaries are imprisoned criminals offered a pardon if they can save the President's daughter.
  • In the French classic Nikita, a woman is recruited from death row to become an assassin by means of a fake lethal injection.
    • Remade for America as Point of No Return, Bridget Fonda plays a drug addict named Maggie who is convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death; however, her death is faked at her execution, and a government agent (presumably American) named Bob offers her a reprieve if she accepts a job as an assassin. Maggie is successful at first, but grows to hate it, and Bob eventually sympathizes, promising to get her out of the deal if she can complete one last important hit. Unfortunately, this last hit proves difficult, and Bob's superior sends a "cleaner" to kill both Maggie and the original mark, the situation ending with the cleaner dead, and Maggie making a run for it, Bob calling the superior and, after a moment of hesitation, telling him that Maggie is also dead.'
    • And remade for Korea as The Villainess, in which Kim Ok-vin plays an underworld hitman named Sook-hee who is captured by the government and retrained as an assassin — with the added wrinkle that she was pregnant at the time of her capture, and is blackmailed into taking the job with the chance of raising her daughter.
  • The main character in Play Dirty is chagrined to discover that the "military unit" he's been given to command on what is essentially a Suicide Mission are nothing but a bunch of convicts given their freedom in exchange for serving as an unofficial special forces division.
  • The Proposition: "I wish to present you with a proposition..."
  • In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo is offered a commuted sentence in exchange for looking for POWs in Vietnam.
  • Played with in Kim Basinger vehicle The Real McCoy, with the protagonist on parole and trying to go straight. A criminal organization threatens to void her parole unless she aids in a heist.
  • In A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die!, Col. Pembroke recruits six prisoners about to be hanged to help him capture Fort Holman: promising them their freedom if they survive.
  • In RoboCop 3 the Big Bad does this in a way that really goes against protocol. Basically, he has done so much bad stuff (including murdering a cop and framing the hero for it, among other things) that while he is still technically in control of the police department, the media turn against him, and every other cop on the force quit. So he decides to simply recruit every crook in jail at the time as replacements. As you might expect, that doesn't exactly work out as well as he'd hoped...
  • The Rock uses this trope with John Mason, who isn't a crook per se, but a British spy who was captured three decades earlier.
  • It's not official, but in The Shawshank Redemption, Andy is able to get serious brownie points from the chief of the guards (along with protection from the other inmates) by volunteering to do his tax forms for free; this gains the attention of the warden, who puts Andy in charge of the prison's financial duties. Eventually, other correction officers seek his advice on money matters, even from other prisons, and he starts corresponding with the government for funds to improve the decrepit library. Unfortunately for him, this leads to the events being put into motion that may clear his name, and the crooked warden who doesn't want his useful crook leaving willing to go to extremes to stop what is in play.
  • In a movie of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, at one point he is having a lot of trouble getting a crew for his ship because the place he's planning to go to is so dangerous. Finally, he cuts a deal with the government that any convict who agrees to work on his ship will, if he survives the voyage, be pardoned. However, this results in a mutiny since most of his crew are not the loyal type...
  • In Suicide Squad, it's 2021 sequel and the 2022 Peacemaker series, Amanda Waller assembles a group of supervillains to do the government's dirty work, or else she'll activate their Explosive Leash.
  • The Sukeban Deka films, their anime incarnation, and the anime series revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • Virtuosity: Denzel Washington's character is given this deal to try and catch Sid 6.7, but is implanted with an explosive device so the police can just kill him if he goes rogue. Except that his police force ally destroys the software to do it just as they're about to execute him.
  • Watchers III has Ferguson, the fugitive marine who was the protagonist of the previous film, being offered a reduced prison sentence if he takes part in a rescue mission into a jungle with a team of other former soldiers. He then finds himself once again battling the monster Outsider with the genius dog Einstein on his side.
  • xXx:
    • Xander (Vin Diesel) works for the NSA or goes to prison for grand theft auto.
    • His replacement in the second movie, Stone (Ice Cube), was broken out of prison and put to work saving the President.


By Author:

  • Sean Dillon, Jack Higgins' most frequent hero, is an ex-IRA member who goes to work for British intelligence after he's caught smuggling missiles in the Balkans.

By Work:

  • In the first Artemis Fowl book, the LEP offers Mulch Diggums a reduced sentence in exchange for breaking into Fowl Manor. Mulch takes the deal, then steals some gold, fakes his own death and runs for it.
  • In Thomas Harris' other book Black Sunday, Faisal, a middle-eastern terrorist, has a problem with pilot Michael Lander who is unstable, so he sends a message to his handlers that he needs a pilot on short notice, who must be expendable. As it turns out the Libyans have a pilot who was convicted of drug dealing and is awaiting sentence: having both his hands amputated. The man is recruited by telling him he will be pardoned if he goes on a mission for his country. He is not, however, told that he will not live to see that pardon.
  • Frank Abagnale, author/protagonist of the book and movie Catch Me If You Can, ultimately went to work for the Feds to help them spot check forgeries.
  • Robert E. Howard twists it in "Rogues in the House". A mysterious figure does approach Conan the Barbarian and offer him a way out in return for an assassination. On the other hand, he does make it clear from the beginning that he's offering a jail break.
  • In Damnation Alley, the protagonist, Hell Tanner is given a pardon for his substantial crimes if he will cross from the East Coast to the West Coast of North America to deliver a vaccine, the world having been wrecked and North America having become an impassible wasteland.
  • In The Destroyer this was the set up for Remo Williams joining C.U.R.E. after they framed him for murder.
    • The Film of the Book instead has them fake his death and "reshuffle" his face, warning him that refusal means death.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Going Postal, con artist Moist von Lipwig, after his apparent execution ("apparent" thanks to Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork), is tasked with getting the Ankh-Morpork Post Office up and running again. In the next book, as Moist is getting bored with the post office (practicing breaking into it, even though he has all the keys, for example), Vetinari plucks him up again and sets him to fixing the banks. It's hinted at the end that the next task Moist will be set is to fix the taxation system, but he ended up instead getting a train network up and running.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe: The Sixth Doctor was roped along a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, including minor annoyance Sabalom Glitz, into stealing a priceless artifact for a corrupt government officer in the novel Mission: Impractical. The officer poisoned them and withheld the antidote as extra security, not actually intending to survive past the theft, but the poison doesn't work on Time Lords and Six quickly whips up a cure for Glitz (which he administers without his knowledge). He then proceeds to more or less forget to inform Glitz of this until the end.
  • In The Emperor's Soul, protagonist Shai is jailed for the theft of a state treasure, and due to be executed, until the Emperor is rendered comatose and his advisors tap her to use her skill at magical Forgery to create a new soul for him.
  • Gentleman Bastard: In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the archon poisons Locke and Jean and bribes them to work for him with the antidote. This does not work out well for anyone.
  • In the Rafael Sabatini's story Gismondi's Wage, the title character is a cutthroat who murders a man on the road and while stripping his corpse, discovers a letter about an assassination plot against Cesare Borgia. Gismondi goes to Borgia anticipating a reward, but Cesare quickly deduces how Gismondi got his hands on the letter, and the "reward" he offers is a choice between risking his life impersonating his victim to foil the conspiracy or facing immediate execution.
  • In Haruhi Suzumiya, Ryoko returns to protect Kyon from Kuyoh, and appears in a Big Damn Heroes moment to fight Kuyoh in a knife battle, making the scene where she tries to kill Kyon a Foreshadowing scene.
  • Heart of a Heist by A.J. Marchant: The main character becomes this in the end.
  • In H.I.V.E. Series book five, Nero reveals to Pike that he's had Cypher locked in the basement of the school for several books. They use him to attempt to decrypt files, build what is essentially a pulse rifle, and try to solve the problem of the school's temporary blackouts. True to form, he doesn't survive to see book six.
  • Ixia and Sitia: This is the entire plot of Poison Study — the heroine becomes the Commander's food taster.
  • Joel Suzuki: In Mystery of the Moonfire, Joel, Felicity, Thornleaf, and Fireflower go to Darkeye, a potion maker who's been imprisoned for almost two decades, to ask for his help making an all-purpose mind control antidote. Darkeye gives them the recipe and vomits up the special ingredient, and in exchange, the protagonists agree to arrange for his release if the antidote works.
  • Journey to the West: the highly mischievous Sun Wukong was put in a multi-millennia-long time-out by the Buddha until Guan Yin recruited him to guard the monk Xuanzang. What, you thought this was a modern trope?
  • Fisk of the Knight and Rogue Series is indebted to Sir Michael as his squire for an indefinite amount of time. Sir Michael paid quite a hefty fine Fisk was charged for multiple fraud charges; Fisk himself couldn't pay, had no one to pay it for him, and the punishment for not paying it would be quite severe.
  • In Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Sheftu, leader of La Résistance, tries to turn Mara into this, believing her to be a slave on the run from a cruel master and promising to not reveal her if she serves him. He has a mini-Heroic BSoD when he realizes the truth: she was bought and employed by his archnemesis and he never had a hold on her. Well, except for The Power of Love.
  • The Queen's Thief: The opening of The Thief finds Gen in a dungeon after being caught stealing. He agrees to help find an artifact in order to get out. Ultimately subverted though, as Gen got himself caught deliberately as a Batman Gambit, so he could be part of the party looking for the artifact so that he would be able to steal it out from under them, and he's way smarter than his handlers.
  • Rebuild World: This shows up in two forms.
  • Both the first two Hannibal Lecter novels (Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs). Instead of a pardon, which is out of the question, Lecter wants information about the private lives of his interrogators. Since he is Hannibal Lecter, the end result is the same as if they had just left the door to his cell unlocked.
  • The Red Dwarf novel Last Human features a prison that tried to make a planet inhabitable by using convicts. The cons were given a choice between a nightmarish hell made by whatever their subconscious thought was worst or their soul being used to bring a planet to life. The first planet used guilty cons and so was evil. For the second, they framed innocent people and forced them to choose between going back to their own personal hell and finish their sentence or become the next life force of the new planet. This caused the second planet to be plagued by an entity known as The Rage, a tornado thing possessed of the anger of the injustice the innocents had to face.
  • The Riftwar Cycle: The basic plot of Shadow of a Dark Queen: a mercenary company is formed of condemned men, complete with slightly sadistic sergeant.
  • In the Stephen King short story "The Jaunt" (published in his collection Skeleton Crew), a prisoner on death row is offered the chance to walk if he agrees to make a dangerous trip through a new teleportation system. It turns out that he should have chosen to go to the chair.
  • In the K. J. Parker novel Sharps, two of the members of a fencing team ostensibly sent to an enemy country as a good will mission are shanghaied into participating through this. The Brilliant, but Lazy perpetual student Girault is caught in flagrante with a coed by her father who Girault kills in semi-self defense. Afterward, he's charged with rape and murder and given a "choice" between death by hanging and participating in the fencing tour, and throughout the novel, wonders if he was set up via Honey Trap. The team's coach, Phrantzes, is given a banned but highly popular pornographic book by a friend, ostensibly as a wedding present and immediately afterward, he's arrested and his wife is imprisoned in a convent. He's then told he can clear himself and free her by agreeing to coach the team. Suspiciously, Phrantzes' "friend" is related by marriage to Girault's victim.
  • In Max Brand's book South Of Rio Grande, Joe Warder is a gambler and a convict hired to bring the gang leader El Tigre back across the Rio Grande, because he's the toughest and most capable of the men they have.
  • In The Stainless Steel Rat, a society that has all but obliterated crime (by catching the potential criminals early and "reforming" them) finds itself ill-equipped to deal with the few criminals who slip through the cracks. So the Special Corps captures the more "moral" criminals (those who value human life) and sends them off to tackle the less moral criminals who pose a more significant threat. Minus the prequel A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born, this is the backbone of almost all the books, starting with our hero's capture by the agency in the start of the first book. Oh, and he meets his wife, a Femme Fatale Serial Killer, via his new job, and after she has a minor lobotomy, she joins up too.
    • The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues, which chronologically takes place before the first novel in the series, where Jim is captured trying to steal newly-minted coins and is sentenced (without trial) to execution by leaving him in a room that's being flooded. An agency (not the Special Corps) replaces him in the room with an android in return for being sent to a prison world to recover an alien artifact. Naturally, he's given a slow-acting poison to make sure he hurries up.
  • Star Wars Legends: The X-Wing Series has the Rebellion actually go to an Imperial prison planet, raid it, take the Rebels, and tell the surviving members of the Black Sun criminal organization that if they want out, they have to help the Rebel Alliance take Coruscant from the Empire. If they do help, the slates will be wiped clean; past offenses will be ignored. Later on, once they're actually on Coruscant, a Space Cop turned Rebel pilot tells the man he put away (Zekka Thyne) that if he doesn't behave he'll be hunted down again.
    • To nobody's great surprise, they (or at least Thyne) end up turning on the New Republic before the end of the book. This is about as conducive to their well-being as you'd expect pissed off Rogue Squadron to be. The leader of the group (Fliry Vorru) manages to talk his way out of trouble, however, and even gets an official post with the New Republic. He still has his own agenda, though....
    • A downplayed example in Wraith Squadron. They're not exactly on death row, but their military careers have been indefinitely halted due to offenses like impertinence, cowardice, or kleptomania. Wedge sums it up thus: Rogue Squadron is the Republic's bright, shiny, photogenic lightsaber, but for some battles you need a hidden vibro-shiv instead.
  • In Super Minion the police capture Buzzer and Pebbles, and offer to release them in exchange for help dealing with a vampire infestation.
  • Tales of the Branion Realm: In The Painter Knight, the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits tasked with rescuing their five-year-old queen includes one of the traitors, caught while trailing the party to kidnap her. He is subjected to an impromptu trial before his child sovereign, who nonchalantly points out that she can execute him before demanding his sworn fealty and service. He gives it at once, and is relieved to be punished by eating nightcrawlers instead.
  • Terra Ignota: Although generally, Servitors are criminals made slaves and requiered to be at the beck and call of anyone who needs their labour, Mycroft's particular arrangement fits this trope in particular. He's an extremely clever notorious criminal (now reformed), which makes his services highly valued by the rich and powerful. While there's no promise of freedom in exchange for him carrying out dangerous missions, his arrangement means that he has powerful allies and gets to live in one location under comfortable conditions, rather than being a vagrant doing manual labor, and remains alive when the sentence for his crimes would've been death.
  • Played with in Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen. After being captured by the Church, title character Elisabeth Le Fanu was sentenced to burn at the stake for her crimes, but her sentence was suspended until she slays the fourteen ranked demons and their contractors. They still fully intend to execute her but she's too useful for the time being. She welcomes this fate. Her execution is stayed a second time in volume 3 courtesy of Kaito pulling a Zero-Approval Gambit to make the Church pursue him as the Kaiser's new contractor.
  • The UNACO series by Alistair Maclean various other authors is a UN crime-fighting force whose agents are former criminals.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The first Ciaphas Cain novel has THE HERO OF THE IMPERIUM deal with the aftermath of a riot by getting all the instigators as light a sentence as possible (both because he wants to avoid damaging the recently created battalion's morale even further and to get himself a nice, friendly fire preventing reputation for putting The Men Firstnote ). He sentences the soldiers who actually committed murder in the riots to "death" via penal legion (see the Warhammer 40,000 example in the Tabletop Games section). In the end he ends up using them for a suicide mission he has to go on himself, with the promise that they'll be spared the penal legion if they survive.
  • Women of the Otherworld: An unnamed Boxed Crook is used in Personal Demon to pose as another character. She doesn't survive.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100 focuses on 100 teenage criminals from the Ark space station, who are sent to Earth to see if it's livable again 97 years after a nuclear war. If they survive, proving it's safe for the rest of the Ark to return to Earth, they'll all be pardoned for their crimes. Criminals were chosen for the job because it's a death sentence: few expect them to survive on the radiation-soaked Earth, and the real motivation for the mission is to conserve the Ark's limited oxygen supply by thinning the population. It had to be teenage criminals sent down, since they're the only ones actually held in prison on the Ark: all adults convicted of a crime are automatically executed. This backfires for the Ark when the teenagers do survive on the Earth's surface, but, being juvenile delinquents, decide to make the Ark think they're dead so they won't have to follow its rules anymore.
  • Alias features three major examples. Arvin Sloane spends most of season 3 working with the CIA as part of his pardon agreement after turning himself in, even working as a double-agent within the Covenant. Granted, this could all have been The Plan; it's unclear within the show how much his later betrayal of the CIA was planned, and whether his entire surrender was a ploy. Nadia Santos is initially recruited into the Argentine secret service as an alternative to prison when she's finally arrested after a several-year-long crime spree (mainly theft and assault) in her teens, which leads to her eventually joining a CIA black ops division. Renée Rienne also appears to be heading this way in season 5, with Sydney offering to secure a pardon agreement in exchange for Rienne working full-time for the CIA, an offer that becomes redundant when Anna Espinosa cuts Renée's throat minutes later. Furthermore, there are many other partially-valid examples (such as Rachel, Dixon and Marshall all being recruited into the real CIA, despite having technically been criminals when working for the Shed/SD-6, on the grounds that they had been conned into believing they were already CIA operatives) and more minor straight-up examples (such as Vivica A. Fox's crooked security expert in season 3).
  • The TV series Alias Smith and Jones deals with a variant of this situation. Outlaws Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry have been promised a provisional amnesty, but the governor is holding off until some undetermined time in the future, until which the fellows have to stay out of trouble and somehow keep from being arrested or shot and turned in for the reward on their heads—they're still wanted dead or alive, for a mind-blowing amount of money (in the 1800s) as a reward. There's no specific deadly mission for them, except the daily struggle to keep doing honest work and not be recognized for who they are.
  • The A-Team's final season deals with the eponymous heroes being this in nearly every episode.
  • Batwoman (2019): In Season 3, Alice is recruited from Arkham to help Team Batwoman to track down all the new villains who are acquiring the old Rogues' weapons.
  • In Season 2 of Braquo, former Cowboy Cop Eddy Caplan is offered that kind of bargain after being jailed for the various crimes he and his team committed in Season 1. He is told to infiltrate the Invisibles, a gang of ex-soldiers turned robbers and murderers, in exchange for regaining his freedom and having Delgado, Morlighem, Wachewski and him cleared of charges and restored to their former ranks.
  • In Breaking In, this is how the main character becomes part of the team after he gets caught defrauding the school.
  • Breakout Kings is about three criminals who get one month off their sentences for every escapee they help the US Marshals recapture.
  • In Brimstone, the Devil releases Ezekiel Stone from Hell to capture the 113 damned souls that had escaped. If he returns all 113, he gets a second chance at life. If he fails, he returns to eternal damnation.
  • Many of the Big Bads on Burn Notice use Michael like this.
  • In By Any Means, TomTom is working with the team instead of doing prison time after being convicted of computer embezzlement.
  • Criminal Minds: This is how former cracker Garcia got her job with the FBI.
  • An episode of Dark Angel reveals that Manticore used death row inmates to train their soldiers. If the inmate makes it to the perimeter before the soldiers catch him, he gets to go free. Of course, that doesn't happen.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor gets stuck as this in a loose arc covering the very end of his Second, much of his Third and a fair amount of his Fourth incarnation — especially by the Time Lords, who have an Alien Non-Interference Clause which the Doctor refuses to obey, and which they exploit to pretend they are obeying. The sort of canonical Season 6B theory speculates that the Time Lords were using the Second Doctor as this for many years prior to his execution (in the Time Skip between "The War Games" and "Spearhead from Space"), possibly using its threat as a bargaining point against him; the Third Doctor was possibly manipulated by them into battling the Master thanks to his exile; and the Fourth Doctor, who by that point was very sick of authority, was used by the Time Lords as an agent or saboteur multiple times (see "Genesis of the Daleks" and "The Deadly Assassin") before one of his clever schemes to get out of it went horribly right and ended up making him the President.
    • In the animated spinoff version of Scream of the Shalka, the Master, having expended his lives, now lives with the Doctor in an android body. There are, of course, many rules, and all in all he'd rather be free. On the other hand, he gets to spend a lot of time with the Doctor...
    • In the new series, it's revealed that the Time Lords offered the Master a new regeneration cycle in exchange for fighting for them in the Last Great Time War. Unsurprisingly, as seen in Big Finish's War Master storyline, his attempts to weasel out of the Time Lords' thumb and into power wind up wrecking Gallifrey's chances against the Daleks.
    • "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone": River Song turns out to be in jail for murder, and has been doing missions like the one in the story in order to hopefully earn a pardon. It later transpires that the murder for which she was jailed, that of the Doctor, didn't actually happen.
    • In series 10, the Doctor has taken on the task of reforming Missy. She starts out imprisoned for a thousand years, but eventually circumstances force Nardol to release her to pilot the TARDIS and rescue the Doctor, and after that she makes several forays into the outside universe for the purpose of doing good.
  • The Fixer. A special forces soldier turned Vigilante Man is released from prison to become an assassin for the British government.
  • Game of Thrones (and its literary source material, A Song of Ice and Fire) have The Night's Watch, which is inspired by the Real Life French Foreign Legion. A criminal is able to evade their sentence by joining the Watch. However, when you join, it's for life; try and leave, and you'll be hunted down and executed. Life at "The Wall" is so hard, as Tyrion notes in an early episode, that rapists, caught between the Wall and castration for their crime, "Most choose the knife". Says a lot, considering that only about half of them would survive such a procedure in that setting.
  • The TV series Garrison's Gorillas chronicled the adventures of a group of convicts recruited into the U.S. Army duirng World War II by the offer of a post-war parole. (If they refused the offer, they went back to prison; if they tried to desert, they'd be executed.) Commanded by West Point graduate Lt. Garrison, the "Gorillas" functioned as commandos going on covert missions behind Nazi lines.
  • Hardcastle and McCormick: Ex-con Mark McCormick is arrested for grand theft auto (the person he stole the car from having murdered Mark's mentor to get his hands on it), and newly-retired judge Milton Hardcastle offers to get Mark paroled into his custody if Mark agrees to help him go after criminals who have escaped conviction.
  • Happens to our heroes on Hustle about once a series. On every occasion, the authorities are confident they can outsmart Mickey Bricks. The attempts invariably end in Epic Fail.
  • 2000 television show The Invisible Man had a con released from prison by an intelligence agency so he could become a guinea pig and agent by undergoing surgery to give him a gland that made him invisible. In this case, the government didn't break him out for his skills; nepotism got him out, since his brother was the lead scientist of the project. It was only after his brother was murdered and the government realized that nobody else knew how to remove the gland and place it in somebody more suitable that he was drafted as a secret agent. His skills as a thief did, however, prove quite suited to a job that of necessity involved a lot of sneaking around and breaking into places unseen.
    • They still have a hold on him in the form of the counteragent, a drug meant to keep Darien from going insane due to a nasty side effect from the gland (that the Big Bad deliberately introduced into it in order to control potential buyers). The flaw is removed in the series finale, but Darien chooses to come back to the Agency to work of his own free will.
  • It Takes a Thief (1968): Classy Cat-Burglar Alexander Mundy, finally captured, is granted limited freedom on the condition that he ply his thieving trade for a U.S. intelligence agency.
  • The first few episodes of Jason King has Jason working for the government to forgive his debt to Inland Revenue. Later episodes abandon this premise.
  • In Level 9, Roland Travis was recruited to the titular team as an alternative to going to jail for cyber crimes.
  • Leverage uses this as the basis for its season 3 arc, with a few flourishes. Basically: "Nate will go to jail (again), and his crew will be killed".
  • To kill the crew of the Lexx, Prince sends a NASA shuttle on a One-Way Trip with a death row convict he recruited "to do some more maiming, mutilation and murder before entering oblivion yourself." The quickly-dispatched killer is really there to keep the crew from realizing that there's also a ticking nuclear time bomb on the shuttle.
  • The Longest Day in Chang'an: Li Bi tells Xiao Jing he'll be freed if he catches the terrorists.
  • In the second episode of The Magnificent Seven series, the judge offers Professional Gambler and Conman Ezra Standish a pardon for his crimes in exchange as acting as one of the town's peacekeepers for thirty days. It seems to have worked out well, since he's still there a couple of years later.
  • In season 2 of The Mandalorian, Mando and Cara enlist the now-imprisoned Mayfeld, who was captured in season 1, to help them infiltrate an Imperial base, in exchange for a reduced sentence. Afterwards, Cara tells Mando it's too bad Mayfeld was killed in the operation, giving him a chance to start over.
  • The Mentalist - Defied. Following his murder of Red John, the serial killer who killed his wife and daughter, Patrick Jane is tracked down by the F.B.I. in Mexico, and offered a choice of either being F.B.I. consultant for five years (a deal that can be revoked at any time if he acts up), or being locked up for 20 years to life. Janey, of course, isn't about to play that and instead cuts his own deal leaving him basically free and clear, promising to reveal some very embarrassing information if they don't agree to his terms.
  • The Mod Squad. The concept was to take three rebellious, disaffected young social outcasts and convince them to work as unarmed undercover detectives as an alternative to being incarcerated. Long-haired rebel Pete Cochran was evicted from his wealthy parents' Beverly Hills home, then arrested and put on probation after he stole a car; Lincoln Hayes, who came from a family of 13 children, was arrested in the Watts riots, one of the longest and most violent riots in Los Angeles history; flower child Julie Barnes, the "canary with a broken wing," was arrested for vagrancy after running away from her prostitute mother's San Francisco home; and Captain Adam Greer was a tough but sympathetic mentor and father figure who convinced them to form the squad.
  • Nikita (see Films above) was made into TV series twice: La Femme Nikita and Nikita.
  • Players. The series follows three young ex-cons who, as a part of a new FBI program, are commissioned to track down criminals.
  • The fourth season premiere of Prison Break kicks off the season with this, involving almost every major character.
  • The Prisoner (1967) episode "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" has Number Six is used as one of these without his knowing it.
  • This is part of Walter's back story in Scorpion. After he hacked NASA's computers as a child, the FBI put him to work for them till he was 16.
  • Search: Min-gyu is court-martialled on suspicion of unspecified crimes. Joining the search party is his only chance to stay in the military.
  • This was the premise of She Spies, with the added twist that even if they cooperated fully, the girls would be sent back to prison if they failed a single mission.
  • In the series premiere of Star Trek: Voyager, Tom Paris is let out of prison to help Janeway track down a Maquis ship. This ends up shifting to Trading Bars for Stripes when Voyager gets stuck on the other side of the galaxy and loses a good chunk of its crew.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation did the same thing with Ro Laren, Bajoran Starfleet officer who'd been in prison. They let her out in order to help negotiate with a group of Bajoran "resistance fighters" who had supposedly expanded their war against the Cardassians to include Federation targets.
  • The Sukeban Deka series, their film incarnation, and the anime series revolve around a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl fighting crime.
  • The whole point of the short-lived series Thieves.
  • This is how Toshiko joined Torchwood in "Fragments".
  • The premise of the USA Network series White Collar.
    • This is a less sinister variation than the page description would suggest, though: Neal is working with the FBI openly and on the books as a consultant, not as an expendable resource. At least, not officially expendable. It's not a bad deal for him, really: instead of four years in prison, he spends four years consulting for the FBI and in his spare time he can go where he likes... within the two-mile radius of his tracking anklet, of course.
      • Except when he leaves the radius and hangs out in the bad guy's HQ, to which the Bureau can't get a warrant. Of course, any evidence of criminal activity they may find in the course of apprehending him is perfectly admissible...
      • The anklet has become the show's version of a Cardboard Prison, given how easily Neal slips it, to the point where it's not even mentioned anymore. Eventually, they stop putting it on him.
    • Also, it was Neal's idea.
    • The anklet isn't designed to be impossible to remove — it's designed to be impossible to remove without alerting the government. That function works well.

  • Karl Marx argued parts of the proletariat constitued the lumpenproletariat, which was mainly composed from thugs and other assorted persons and who could be used by reactionary powers as counter-revolutionary forces. Afterwards, other Marxist thinkers continued reflexion on the subject, either to support, nuance or invert this view.

  • Doug Eiffel of Wolf 359 is a former alcoholic, convicted of kidnapping his daughter and injuring her and two high school students in the subsequent car crash. Cutter picked him up out of jail to be a living test tube for Hilbert's experimental Decima virus - not that he knew it at the time.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the backstory to BattleTech, the Draconis Combine used a variation of this trick against its two enemies between Succession Wars. They gave a bunch of convicts and other undesirables the chance to earn freedom. They were given BattleMechs and dropped onto key enemy worlds to take out critical targets. However, they were only given minimal training, the 'Mechs they were given were barely functional anyway, and the ships that dropped them off immediately left, abandoning them. So there was never any chance for freedom; it was a suicide mission. Though it was ultimately effective, causing lots of lots of infrastructure damage.
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • Module C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness. The pre-generated team of PC's almost entirely consists of prisoners from the local dungeon given a chance for freedom if they complete the mission.
    • O2: The Gem and the Staff, a one-player-one-DM module, features a lone rogue breaking into a wizard's tower to steal a magic gem ... and then being forced by the gem's outraged owner, on pain of And I Must Scream, to steal a magic staff from a second wizard.
  • In the Freedom Six timeline of Sentinels of the Multiverse, after Unity's death, Mr. Fixer hunted down Biomancer and turned him into one of these for a short time, forcing him to make a Fleshchild in Unity's image. Fixer then used Zhu Long rituals to place Unity's soul in the Fleshchild, creating Freedom Six/Golem Unity. Only when it was all clearly successful did he let Biomancer go.
  • Shadowrun supplement State of the Art: 2064. When shadowrunners are sent to prison, they sometimes receive offers from Megacorps and governments: do a criminal job for them and they'll cancel your sentence. Those who accept are usually fitted with an Explosive Leash consisting of a cranial bomb that will cause Your Head A-Splode if they fail or run away. Runners are advised to not put themselves in the sponsor's control after finishing the job, as they may decide to put the runners back in prison or just kill them to keep them quiet.
  • Task Force Games
    • Starfire, Nexus magazine article "The Gauntlet". The Director of the Combined Secret Services offers the captured pirate Thomas Calloway a chance to take command of a task force and rescue a Khanate princess from the Arachnids.
    • Star Fleet Battles. Klingons use expendable penal ships manned by convicted military criminals. Once the prisoners have served long enough, their crimes are pardoned and they return to their normal duty.
  • Classic Traveller. Several of the adventure seeds in the 76 Patrons supplement involve PCs who are arrested and imprisoned by the local authorities, then offered their freedom if they'll do a job for the government.
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • Astra Militarum penal legions, most notably Colonel Schafer's Last Chancersnote  are recruited from prison planets and Guardsmen of other regiments who have fallen foul of the Imperium's many strict laws. These units are typically given the most dangerous of assignments and are not expected to survive the conflict.
    • Many Inquisitors employ convicted criminals with useful skills as agents. Most of these are well paid but never out of danger and the most dangerous will often have some form of Restraining Bolt. Some particularly Radical Inquisitors even extend this idea to the metaphysical, binding Daemons to their will and using them in the same way.
  • In the default premise of the Space Opera OSR Wretched Space, the player characters are members of the Wretched Legion. Made up of criminals and others misfits given a second chance, it is an auxiliary of the Galactic Federation's Space Police used to handle the worst missions in the loosely controlled Outer Rim. Being expendable, they are also implanted with a nanobomb that their ship's AI can detonate if it ever decides they are disobeying orders.

    Video Games 
  • Applies to several characters in Alien Swarm. Crash and Vegas in particular are serving time with the military in lieu of imprisonment for, respectively, bringing down an entire financial network at age 21 and a nondescript incident. Wolfe is a somewhat rare variation, having chosen to serve in the military over a life sentence and then sticking with it, having discovered he enjoyed the military far more than his previous life of crime.
  • At least two of the three main teams in Raizing's Armed Police Batriderrogue cops and inveterate criminals who just like violence — fit this trope like a glove. The third, made up of powerful psychics held by the government for study, only half: while they were implanted with bombs to be detonated on failure or insubordination, none of them were actually offered anything in exchange for success. Not to say they didn't end up taking it anyway.
  • Battlefield: Bad Company is a video game portraying a company made up of the men whose offenses within the US Army aren't serious enough for a court martial and as such are used as essentially cannon fodder. It's not purely this trope, since it's mentioned that people without records, like Sergeant Redford, can also serve in the company for a sped up discharge.
  • Bug Fables: When the wasps take over the Rubber Prison, they release many of the inmates to impede the heroes. Though the Ruffians are still locked in their ball-and-chain impediments because the wasps apparently think those guys are still too dangerous.
  • In the Chzo Mythos, Trilby is captured sometime after the events of 5 Days a Stranger, and is recruited to the Special Talent Project.
  • In the backstory of City of Villains, Dr. Carl Egon, a Mad Scientist who was recklessly endangering the citizens of Cap Au Diable and ultimately killed its governor, was captured by Arachnos, publicly executed, and privately refashioned into Dr. Aeon, the new governor of Cap. It's a slight subversion; he's still an amoral Mad Scientist, only now working for (and funded by) Arachnos.
  • Colonization has "Petty Criminals" as some of the more undesirable colonists, as they get hefty penalties for complex/indoors work. They can be useful in Lumberjack, Miner and Fisherman/Farmer jobs, but these are only valuable until you get experts. However, give them some rifles and convert them to militia! Or even better, dragoons (better chances, and a defeat costs only 50 horses). If they win a few battles, they don't advance in military experience, but become full-fledged colonists and actually useful around the town. Alternatively, work experience (for mining, farming, etc. they are as good as free colonists) or education (if you don't mind a teacher just sitting in the schoolhouse and eating). Either way, you get Indentured Servants (halved penalties), then Free Colonists, then experts. Pushing William Brewster into congress removes both penalty types from possible recruits forever.
    • In FreeCol, Petty Criminals can't get work experience or even learn from natives, so the least wasteful way without fighting is schooling them to Indentured Servants and then shipping to a native village, which makes them experts right away.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
    • Soviet flak troopers are convicts serving as part of their sentence. They'll comment that the front lines beat being in the gulag.
    • The Empire's Steel Ronin added in Uprising are actually soldiers spared the death sentence because of their ability as warriors and instead locked into battle suits.
  • Company of Heroes 2 utilize Penal Battalion infantry squads for the Soviet Union, as can be seen under the Real Life folder in this page. Like regular mid-late-war Assault units, Penal Battalion infantry are armed with semiautomatic SVT-40 rifles to make them more effective against infantry than basic Conscripts, may be upgraded to use a flamethrower to further their infantry effectiveness and add a lot more against buildings, and use a long-fused and expensive Satchel Charge ability which will dish out a lot of damage against buildings and most armored vehicles hit or simply obliterate all other things caught in the blast. However, unlike actual Assault units, every man has his own SVT-40. The rifle was a specialist weapon typically reserved for sharpshooters and snipers, and wasn't usually issued to other troops until the mid-late war period.
    • Being so well armed is not wholly unrealistic. Each Front (up to 200,000 combat troops) was authorised to maintain one Penal Battalion (up to 1000 combat troops) composed of disgraced soldiers. Within these, they were authorised to field a company (up to 200 men) composed of nothing but disgraced NCOs and Officers. These former military men could be reasonably expected to have the training and intelligence necessary to care for and make good use of such valuable weapons. These specialist units should be distinguished form the one that each Army (up to 100,000 combat troops) was authorised to maintain, which were not always composed of former soldiers and had no all-NCO/Officer companies. Despite the in-game units' equipment suggesting that they are an elite unit fielded at Front level, their voice acting hints is more indicative of an ordinary unit at Army level.
  • Dragon Age: Origins:
    • The PC's fellow Grey Warden candidate Daveth is a thief forced to join the Grey Wardens; unfortunately, he doesn't survive their dangerous initiation rite, which involves drinking poison.
    • Your Qunari companion Sten slaughtered a family of farmers in a fit of rage (he thought they took his sword) and was put in a cage to be killed by the Darkspawn when they arrived. If you don't convince him to join you and get him released, he will die.
    • Close to the end of the game, you can also do this to Loghain, as punishment for his coup and various other crimes. It's a favoured tactic of the Grey Wardens: they need bodies to fight the Blight, not corpses.
    • In the expansion Awakening, the majority of your party members are this: Anders is an apostate mage in danger of being captured by the Templars, Nathaniel is in jail for trying to kill you and steal back his family's possessions from your stronghold, Velanna engaged in a campaign of terrorism against humans, and Sigrun fled from a battle (considered an unforgivable offense among the Legion of the Dead).
    • Even the Player Character is a Boxed Crook if you choose the Mage, City Elf or Dwarven Commoner origins. A Mage Warden (unwittingly) helps a blood mage escape, a City Elf Warden slaughters a bunch of rape-happy thugs (and possibly the evil nobleman employing them), and a Dwarven Commoner violates several ancient and sacred dwarven traditions and laws. All would have ended up in jail or worse if Duncan hadn't invoked the Rite of Conscription.
    • It would also have been the case with the above-mentioned blood mage, who was to become a full party member, had the developers not run out of time and turned him to an incidental (but plot-important) NPC. Basically, he is caught and about to be executed for poisoning the Arl. The original plan was to have the Player Character have the option of conscripting him into the Wardens.
    • Duncan himself in The Calling novel. A pickpocket on the streets of Val Royeaux (especially since he's not even Orlesian). He gets caught by the guards and is facing severe punishment. Luckily for him, a Grey Warden commander happens to be in town and invokes the Rite of Conscription. Downplayed as the Grey Warden Commander saw it as a punishment.
  • The .34 update to Dwarf Fortress adds vampires, who infiltrate your fort and drink your useful workers. The intended manner of dealing with them is to have them executed, but their supernatural qualities give them an alternative function.
  • Subverted in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: You start off as a prisoner transferred to the eponymous remote province and are pardoned by The Emperor's own decree on condition that you will cooperate with his Blades on a top secret mission. The subversion comes when you realize that you can say bollocks to that and never show up for your "probation" reports, instead enjoying your new life of freedom however you want. It is even possible (though it's unlikely that you'll find it without help), to complete the main quest using a backpath method that gets you around having to cooperate with the Blades at all.
  • The Convict from Enter the Gungeon was given the choice of a life in prison or going to the eponymous dungeon to kill her past and fix her mistakes. She naturally chose the latter.
  • After General Keyser is defeated and captured in Exit Fate, his rival Bast (whom you recruited specifically to outwit Keyser) wants to draft him for your side. Keyser rightfully thinks the idea is ludicrous, but Bast points out two important things — the war is turning, with your side looking to be winning, and Keyser is more concerned about furthering his career than loyalty to a losing side. Bast then adds, "Wouldn't it be interesting to work with me instead of against me?" The General stands no chance.
  • Final Fantasy XIV introduces Fordola rem Lupus in the Stormblood expansion, being an Ala Mhigan who worked for the Garlean Empire with her gang, the Skulls, as enforcers. After being given an artificial Echo from experiments, she has Combat Clairvoyance, is stronger and has faster reflexes. Her problem comes is that she can't turn off the part where she can see the histories of anyone she looks at, including her victims. During the post-expansion story, she's let out of the box to help the Warrior of Light fight the Ananta Primal Lakshmi since only those with the Echo, natural or artifical, are immune to being tempered. Afterwards, she prefers to stay in that box, only coming out when other Primals need to be put down.
  • Freedom Planet: Lilac barely survived escaping the base of an alien Evil Overlord, and was pretty badly injured when she was picked up by law enforcement. She'd lied to the resident Reasonable Authority Figure and escaped his custody prior to this. However, he shows how forgiving he can be by giving her an assignment and a pardon if she succeeds:
    Magister: Accept, and we will restore your strength. Succeed, and we will restore your honor.
  • Halo: The Covenant's Arbiters a variation of this. They are selected from particularly badass Sangheili (Elites) who have somehow managed to disgrace themselves, and Halo 2 makes it quite clear that Arbiters are 100% expected to die either way. However, taking up the mantle allows the condemned Elite to regain his lost honor, and even cleanse himself of any status he may have as a heretic. Halo Legends reveals that the title was originally a highly honored leadership role among the Sangheili, but the San'shyuum (Prophets) changed its nature to one of dishonor to break remaining Sangheili resistance to the Covenant.
    • Halo 2's Arbiter clearly want to make up for his failure to prevent Alpha Halo from being destroyed, and will happily go to his grave if he can accomplish his given task. In contrast, the Arbiter from Halo Wars is a vicious criminal who doesn't regret anything he did, and is mostly in it just to kill things, despite his genuine loyalty to his handler.
    • Note that in most cases, an Arbiter who manages to survive his Suicide Mission is simply sent on more of them until he eventually actually dies on one, depending on the severity of the crisis he was made Arbiter for. In the case of Halo 2's Arbiter, the Hierarchs have ordered Tartarus to kill him if this happens. Unfortunately, he survives (with help), kills Tartarus in a rematch, ultimately becomes the leader of what eventually becomes the Sword of Sanghelios, allies with humanity and kills the last Hierarch with his bare hands. Helps that this Elite happened to be one of the single most powerful and experienced of his kind, having been the Supreme Commander of one of the largest Covenant armadas before his disgrace.
  • Henry Stickmin Series: In Infiltrating the Airship, Commander Galeforce captures the infamous criminal Henry Stickmin and requests his help in taking down the Toppat Clan in exchange for amnesty for his crimes. Depending on player's actions, Henry can either successfully collect the intel on the Toppat Clan's crimes, allowing the military to arrest them, or directly capture their leader to hand them over to military and receive the pardon, or instead betray the military and side with Toppats, becoming their newest leader, or to go rogue and decide to steal the giant ruby in Toppats' possession, annoying the government.
  • Iron Lung is about a convict sent on a dangerous mission to explore an Alien Sea in a ramshackle submarine.
  • Team Korea in The King of Fighters is made of two former criminals, Chang Koehan and Choi Bounge, and their "supervisor", Kim Kaphwan, who's intent (or should we say, hell-bent) on reforming them. Since their alternative is jail time, they go along with it. It seems to be working, considering Kim's Training from Hell has mellowed them out to the point of comic relief (they looked much more vicious in KOF 94 and 95, notably before they got their own doboks). Kim would eventually expand his reform project in KOF XIII to include Raiden and Hwa Jai, though both of them had reformed from their days working under Geese Howard by this point, and decided to join up because they figured it'd help them revitalize their martial arts careers.
  • In Marco and the Galaxy Dragon, Marco, Haqua, and Gargouille are thrown in prison after their three-way brawl causes a lot of property damage. They escape, at which point Tera Isezaki offers them a deal: enroll as students at Isezaki Academy and defend Gold Cord from alien threats, or go back to prison.
  • In Mass Effect 2, you are ordered to recruit Jack, the most powerful human biotic in the galaxy, who just happens to be homicidal, insane and in lockup on The Alcatraz Recycled In SPACE. Unfortunately, the prison warden gets greedy and decides to capture you as well, forcing you to release Jack and every other prisoner in her block. She agrees to work for you in exchange for info on the people who experimented on her: the same group you're forced to work for. In Mass Effect 3, she appears to be fully reformed and is busy training young biotics on how to best use their abilities to help the Alliance. She comes up with the idea of "biotic artillery". She even stops dropping Cluster F Bombs in her new role as a teacher, unless you tease her about it.
  • Gannayev in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. He's no longer beholden to it after the first act, but he stays with the player character to see what chaos they'll get up to next.
  • In Overwatch, this is the backstory of Gunslinger Cole Cassidy, aka Jesse McCree, who was a part of the weapon-smuggling Deadlock Gang before Overwatch busted them. Considering his marksmanship and other skills too valuable to waste, the organization offered him a choice between joining their covert-ops branch, Blackwatch, or maximum-security prison. Naturally, he chose the former.
  • Octopath Traveler: Therion's route starts because he tried to rob a house in Bolderfall with a butler who was a little too capable. He gets a "fool's bangle" locked onto his arm - a sign of shame for a thief, as it proclaims to all that he has gotten caught in his endeavours and did not get away scot-free. The lady of the house promises to have it removed if he fetches her stolen treasures.
  • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, the prosecutor is one Simon Blackquill, a prison convict serving time for murder. He goes to court in handcuffs... up until he gets suitably upset and breaks them, and frequently makes references to his time in prison. His presence is at first used to illustrate just how messed up the legal world of the game has become... but in the end, we learn that Miles Edgeworth, now Chief Prosecutor, believes him to be innocent and is hoping to prove it.
  • In Rescue Team 10: Danger From Outer Space a shower of metorites which emit deadly radiation forces the government to seek the help of Dr. Jack Ross, who was arrested during the previous game for causing havoc with his weather machines.
  • Lobelia from Sakura Wars 3 definitely qualifies. Unlike the rest of her sweet, innocent team, Lobelia fights not for Paris, but for the reduction of her one thousand year prison sentence. Also, fair is fair, as she's responsible for roughly 85% of all crimes in Paris anyway. Oh, and any failure most probably means death.
  • Accomplished with an additional sting on the tail in The Secret World. In the Halloween mission "The Seven Silences," it's revealed that Lorraine Maillard of The Park, after she turned herself in for infanticide when The Boogeyman stabbed her son using her hand was recruited by the Council of Venice as a test subject; over the course of her time at the lab, she was forcibly bonded with one of the Bees, granting her the same powers and immortality as the player characters - but she suffered drastic, painful side effects. The Council deploys her as a field agent, and constantly revokes her requests to quit or get medical assistance for her health complications because they're too bureaucratic and understaffed to retire a field agent whose performance is directly proportional to the amount of suffering she endures. She commits suicide, repeatedly, over the the next thirty years, until she finds a way to disable her immortality. And then you resurrect her. And then you kick her ass in a duel and send her back to work.
  • Thomas Standish, a.k.a. "The Turtle", helps out Sam over the radio in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory when a mission is a bank robbery.
  • A significant portion of the Terran military in StarCraft are convicts guilty of often-horrific crimes who were "resocialized" (read: basically mind-scrubbed and given artificial personalities) and sent into the military. Their new, excessively kind or chipper personae are often noted as quite unnerving to be around by other characters in books set in the 'verse.
    • Firebat duty is quite dangerous, so Terran forces usually recruit resocs to fill their ranks. They make an exception for psychotic pyromaniacs, as their particular brand of crazy lets them excel without neural modification.
    • Then there's Reapers, who are criminals that are so tough and/or crazy they resist resoc, and are sent to train in Reaper Corps. If they serve for full 2 years, they get released...but currently the longest-served is only 6 months.
    • Averted, to an extent, by the Marauder heavy infantry — because they get goodies like grenade launchers, much effort is put towards placing the most (relatively, only 47% of them have been imprisoned and 23% of them have been accused of murdernote ) well-adjusted soldiers in these suits.
    • And there's the Wings Of Liberty campaign's Token Evil Teammate, Tychus Findlay. A former outlaw and one-time partner of Raynor, he's let out of prison in the opening cinematic by order of Arcturus Mengsk, with orders to help Raynor find Kerrigan and kill her. In the ending cinematic, Raynor ends up shooting him instead.
  • The Sith Warrior's first companion in Star Wars: The Old Republic, Vette, is a professional thief who was captured when she was caught tomb-robbing on Korriban. She's given to the PC as a slave to help them break into the tomb of Ajunta Pall; they can choose to free her afterwards.
  • System Shock's plot started when the hacker was caught breaking into TriOptimum's network. One of their executives offered the hacker freedom and a new neural interface if he agreed to covertly disable some non-essential components of their space station's AI. Of course, the trope is completed when the now-corrupt AI turns the entire station into a mutant-ridden killzone, and the hacker must fight his way free.
  • Regal Bryant in Tales of Symphonia starts as this, as do several other prisoners in the employ of the Pope of Tethe'alla, trying to capture Colette. Then Regal spots the sister of his beloved in your group...
  • In Trauma Team, CR-S01 is this. He has been sentenced to a 250 year sentence for carrying out a bioterrorism attack. However, when the need for a surgeon with extraordinary skills arises, he is allowed to perform surgeries in return for a reduced sentence. In the end, it is revealed that he was merely the scapegoat for said bioterrorism attack.
  • Rudolph from Triangle Strategy is a convicted salt smuggler hoping to get a pardon by helping Constable Sycras take down some other smugglers. While he's indeed pardoned, Gustadolph also has him exiled afterwards.
  • Unreal: Return to Na Pali has you return to the planet you spent so much time trying to escape or get Thrown Out the Airlock. Of course, after you've recovered their lost property, they try to kill you.
  • Brad Evans in the second Wild ARMs game. The commander of ARMS, Irving Vold Valeria, has implanted a detonation device in his neck to ensure he doesn't escape or do anything else funny. Later in the game, Brad finds it quite useful.

  • In Anecdote of Error, Luntsha avoids further punishment after getting expelled by being recruited by Yensha to press Zeya for information. Immediately thereafter, she turns this trope on Zeya, volunteering to accompany her and Yensha to make sure Zeya doesn’t try anything.
  • Cashmere Sky: After getting arrested one time too many in Volume 2, Archer gets sick of bailing Arlo out and gives him a choice: join the academy to become a police officer or go to prison. Arlo's reaction at the threat of imprisonment makes it clear that he can't exactly refuse the offer and begrudgingly accepts.
  • In General Protection Fault, Agent #18 tells Yoshi that if he helps out with running the MuTex to save Nick from the Negaverse, he won't tell his parents about his hacking.
  • Girl Genius:
    • A fairly large group of crooks (mostly murderers with useful skills) are literally boxed inside Castle Heterodyne, a mad scientist's funhouse filled with deathtraps and run by an insane AI, and ordered to figure the place out or die trying in what amounts to a protracted death sentence that may produce useful results.
    • The second time Othar Tryggvassen, Gentleman Adventurer!, is caught and brought to Klaus, the Baron reminds him he's not a cardboard villain, so there will be no deathtraps... but a "job". Of course, the "job" sends him into Castle Heterodyne, which has deathtraps to spare. He's also fitted with an explosive collar, just like every other prisoner in the Castle.
  • Goblin Hollow: the motive for their D&D quest.
  • Heroes Unite. The current story in Heroes Alliance features an organisation called R.I.S.E. — a government-sponsored team of villains, kept in line by mercenaries and fallen heroes seeking redemption. What could possibly go wrong!
  • Impure Blood The offer to the Abomination to escape the Gladiator Games.
  • In The Order of the Stick, Hinjo recruits high-level prisoners to defend the city, offering to reduce their sentences by five years if they do. This example demonstrates the importance of "insurance" and how easily an employer can be screwed over without it — one is hired by an ambitious politician to assassinate Hinjo and the other defects to the Big Bad before she even starts fighting. By contrast, Belkar considers turning on Hinjo but is forced to decide against it due to the Mark of Justice that only Hinjo can remove — the only incentive for the other two was a reduced sentence. Being a paladin, it is possible that binding "insurance" either didn't occur to Hinjo or would have directly conflicted with his code.
  • The entire mercenary group Tagon's Toughs becomes this in the Schlock Mercenary book "Under New Management", doing "dirty" jobs for General Xinchub in exchange for not having an assortment of criminal charges thrown at them and the mercenary company's license to operate be revoked. The events of the next book, "The Blackness Between", document how they ultimately got out from under Xinchub's thumb.
  • In Splitting Image, the protagonist is freed from prison to work with magical charms using his unique knowledge — a dangerous job where few would care if he got into an accident. At the end of Chapter 1, however, his former enemy decides to put his fighting skills to use instead.
  • S.S.D.D.:
    • The "dirty half dozen" were a bunch of hackers that were caught and offered pardons by a shadowy (and under funded) government agency to create the Oracle. Three ended up in jail anyways when they used the Oracle to continue hacking, one was unexpectedly hit by a bus, and the last one ran away.
    • In addition during the future arcs the CORE relies heavily on conscripted convicts, Tessa herself was sentenced to two years service for hitting a cop.
  • In Tales of the Questor, the squire was compelled to accompany Quentyn by being framed for the death of his master (it was actually just a heart attack). He reminds Quentyn of that fact when persuading him not to go back to the duke.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation:
    • The "Class-D Personnel" are convicted criminals sentenced either to life or execution. Unlike most boxed crooks these guys aren't likely to be granted freedom after their missions — they're used exclusively as expendable manpower in dangerous research. They appear to be specifically chosen so that the scientists don't have to worry about petty morality like they do with their less doomed coworkers.
    • If there aren't enough death row criminals to fill the ranks of D-class, the Foundation will lower their standards to political prisoners, refugees, the homeless, or even regular citizens if desperate. Anyone guilty of infiltrating the Foundation to steal anomalous items, or doing/suggesting something overly inhumane to an anomaly, can be arrested and sentenced to D-class.
    • Special mention must go to D-14134, mentioned in SCP-1983. SCP-1983 was an anomalous abandoned house of The Heartless, aggressive shadow creatures that ripped the hearts out of the living and could only be killed by silver bullets fired while the shooter is offering a sincere prayer. D-14134 was sent in on a tether with a camera to scout it after the loss of an entire recon team inside, but the tether snapped and he was lost. Several hours later, SCP-1983 vanished, leaving the scout team's desiccated remains and an informal SCP report written by an agent in the anomaly. It is believed that D-14134, in the manner of some Badass Normal video game character, found the notes and fought his way through the house and somehow destroyed their nest. D-14134 was posthumously awarded the Foundation Star for his actions.
  • Whateley Universe: both Hot Rod and Imp got maneuvered into teaching at Whateley Academy this way, though in somewhat different manners. Melvin Donner (Hot Rod) still keeps the chains he was brought there in as a reminder about his past.
  • In Worm, it's mentioned repeatedly that the final Godzilla Threshold is to open the Birdcage-an Extranormal Prison for supervillains with kill counts in the thousands or tens of thousands. The inmates are so terrifying to the rest of the world that even when three new Endbringers show up, they don't release them. In the end, it takes Scion, the world's greatest hero, pulling a Face–Heel Turn and deciding to wipe out humanity before they are released.
  • Fire Emblem On Forums:
    • Death to Traitors: Quite a few, but Rune stands out, as a Govitian kept on a short leash but taken on the mission for her skills.
    • Colors of Autumn: The youkai who are sentenced to serve are this, being very violent and dangerous monsters who must be restrained to minimise damage, with Kumawani being among them.
  • Adventure Is Nigh starts with the party (Mortimer, Sigmar, Dabarella, and Grinderbin) waking up in a paddy wagon with a human mugger and a goblin sexual deviant on the way to a dungeon one of the local nobles wants a Scroll of Necromancy out of. We're never told what the party did, but Mortimer muttering "Oh, God, What Did I Do Last Night?" implies some drunken shennanegans.

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang is tried and sentenced to death for the actions of one of his predecessors. Just as he is about to be executed, the village is attacked by some raiders; the Avatar would be happy to help except, y'know, he's all tied up at the moment. The mayor quickly downgrades his sentence to "community service".
  • The Villain Episode "Task Force X" from Justice League follows the Task Force (see the comics section) in their planned infiltration of the Watchtower.
  • The Simpsons: In "The Trouble With Trillions", the IRS offers to let Homer off the hook for filing his taxes late if he can get a one trillion-dollar bill from Mr. Burns.
  • On Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Space Ghost kept Zorak and Moltar as prisoners on his talk show, with Zorak leading the band and Moltar directing.

    Real Life 
  • Each Red Army Front (up to 200,000 combat troops) and Army (up to 100,000 combat troops) was authorized to form one Penal Battalion (Shtrafbaty, up to 1000 combat troops) composed of disgraced soldiers. Front-level Shtrafbaty were authorised to contain up to a company (up to 200 men) of former Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers. Army-level Shtrafbaty could contain convicted criminals straight from The Gulag. People deported to internal exile as colonists in Siberia, and their children, were recruited into special combat divisions (of up to 10,000 men) instead and did not serve in Shtrafbaty. Service in a Shtrafbaty only lasted up to 3 months, but the Red Army as a whole lost 100% of its prewar combat forces as dead or captured (capture meaning death due to starvation or overwork as slave labour) within the first four months of the war, lost a further 100% in the following year, and a final 100% in the remaining three years. Service in a mid-late war Shtrafbaty was survivable, though not necessarily likely, but service in an early-war Shtrafbaty was almost certainly not. That said, a handful of the more than 30,000 men who served in early-war units managed to survive the near-complete loss of their entire company (up to 200 men) up to three times and earn their freedom... to serve in regular Red Army units, where survival was still far from guaranteed but actually a realistic possibility.
  • On the opposite side was the Dirlewanger Brigade, a unit of former criminals used for anti-partisan warfare whose conduct was so brutal that even SS commanders wanted it disbanded. Originally only consisting of poachers who had useful stalking and woodcraft skills, eventually more serious crimes and even the criminally insane were allowed to join. The regular army also had the Strafbattalions, consisting of both court-martialed soldiers and civilian criminals.
  • When General Orde Wingate told Field Marshal Slim of his idea for a Special Forces Unit to harrass the Japanese in the rear, Slim turned him down because he found the whole idea "unbritish". Wingate then told Churchill of his idea; Churchill liked it so much that he gave him carte blanche to do as he liked. Wingate immediately recruited every soldier being held in Deolali Military prison in India for his new unit; and so the famous "Chindits" were created. Field Marshal Slim later wrote in his memoirs that "at least Wingate managed to take all the psychopaths in my command out of my hands".
  • Johnny "Gentle Johnny" Ramensky was a Scottish safecracker and burglar who was released from Peterhead Prison on the condition that he work for the British Army as a commando and saboteur during the second World War. He became famous for being parachuted behind enemy lines to steal documentation from Axis leadership, including a mission in Italy where he managed to crack fourteen embassy strongboxes and safes over a single day.
  • Frank Abagnale, author/protagonist of the book and movie Catch Me If You Can and almost undeniably at least a partial inspiration for White Collar, ultimately went to work for the Feds to help them spot check forgeries. Although in reality, unlike the movie, he was paroled normally before ever consulting for the Feds. At the same time he also began consulting for the private sector and began making rather large amounts of money.
  • The "Musta nuoli" (Black Arrow) battalion (21. ErP) in the Finnish Army, made up from paroled felons and prison wardens. The commander of the battalion was legendary Nikke Pärmi, who said now all the thieves and killers were in the job for which they already had education. Criminal convicts proved to be very reliable and trustworthy, while political convicts were liable to defect. The latter could expect no quarter on the hands of the former when caught.
    • Konnakolmonen, "Crook Three", 3. Jaeger Company, of the Pori Brigade in today's Finnish Army. Those conscripts who have criminal background are assigned there.
  • Eugène François Vidocq: after having been sentenced to death, he bargained his life for his cooperation with the police as an informant. He then organized the Brigade de la Sûreté, which was to become the famous Sûreté Nationale under Napoléon, and spent his last years leading a detective agency.
  • The French Foreign Legion was famous for not asking too many questions of its recruits. Those who survived their tour of duty were rewarded with French citizenship and new identities, so this was a possible exit from a life of crime. Nowadays they have tightened up their recruiting policy and no longer accept known criminals. The Foreign Legion is also famous for often having fought against overwhelming odds - and won. Politicians did not want to send Frenchmen on the suicide assignments and the Foreign Legion soldiers knew nobody was going to bail them out or spend much on them if they were captured which was quite motivating in a few battles.
  • In the days of early vaccine, some royals had criminals vaccinated to ensure they wouldn't catch the illness from it before giving it to their family (if they survived they wouldn't be hanged, although there was at least one case of a criminal who already survived the disease in question).
  • Englishman Eddie Chapman was a career criminal who was caught up by Nazi occupation in WWII while doing a stint in a Jersey island prison. He offered his services as a possible Nazi spy so he could get out and get back to England. With a rap sheet that could land him 14 years in prison if he was ever found by the British authorities and the ease he could blend into the English culture, the Nazis accepted Chapman's offer and spent a good chunk of 1940s cash to train him in espionage. The trope was later subverted however when, over his time training with the Nazis, Chapman changed his mind and immediately sought out MI5 when he landed in Britain so he could be used as a double agent against the Germans.
  • Isaac Boro led a failed secessionist struggle against the Nigerian Government in the '60s, for a "Niger Delta Republic". When, in 1967, the more serious secession of Biafra led to the Nigerian Civil War, the Federal Government released him in exchange for military service. He led a group of commandos familiar with the dense Niger Delta Rainforest, and was instrumental in the Federal Army's retaking that region. During a battle where his unit was mixed in with Federal troops, he was shot in the back of the head.
  • The South Korean Unit 684 was composed of petty criminals and unemployed youths, brutally trained and sent to kill the North Korean leader. However, relations improved and the mission was cancelled, leading to a mutiny and the unit being exterminated.
    • While the Korean version of City Hunter is explicitly NOT based of actual events, it makes a nod to this event.
  • George Steinbrenner apparently spent years as an FBI informant to avoid prosecution for illegal contributions given to Nixon until he was granted a pardon at the end of Reagan's term.
  • The Steve McQueen character in The Sand Pebbles is a composite of several men who served in the Asiatic Fleet during the chaos that prevailed after the second Sino-Japanese war suddenly expanded into World War II. Several officers noted that a lot of habitual troublemakers and brig dwellers proved much more effective in the crisis than so-called model sailors.
  • Charles "Lucky" Luciano was released from prison in a deal with The Mafia in order to run the New York docks during World War II, (he may also have assisted in the Allied invasion of Italy and Sicily). This was after the burning of the SS Normandie, believed at the time to be a result of sabotage. It's been claimed that the Mafia set fire to the Normandie to bring this about (though this is doubted by most historians); it's also questionable whether the docks were in any danger from Italian-American dockworkers committing sabotage or spying. Regardless of his services, Luciano was deported to Italy after the war.
  • Apparently prisoners from Guantanamo Bay were released during The War on Terror and "persuaded" (according to a former offical in one case by threatening his children) to help track and kill members of Al Qaida. Codename of the project: Penny Lane.
  • In Edo-era Japan, the police would often use former criminals as spies, informants and torturers; the role was called Okappiki and has since become somewhat romanticized in popular culture.
  • In Rhodesia, the Selous Scouts, who fought against guerillas by using asymmetric warfare, were recruited in part among returned guerillas, some of them having been condemned to death and which they had to actually escape from death row.
  • Earlier in Portuguese Africa, the Flechas were recruited by the PIDE among local natives and guerillas defectors.
  • Some of the earliest suggestions about future recruits for commandos were gangsters; however, Brig. Dudley W. Clarke found them too unreliable.
  • After its 2022 invasion of Ukraine bogged down, Russia attempted to recruit criminals from Russian prisons to enlist, with a promise of a full pardon if they survived and burial with honors if they did not. While they did get some criminals (even ones who'd been convicted of violent crimes like murder) to sign up, many of them promptly deserted and attempted to flee into Ukraine.
  • Ted Bundy offered to be this to help catch other serial killers. Despite his popularity with the press, it turns out that being a sociopath who kidnaps, rapes, and murders people means you're actually worse at understanding people, not better, even other people who kidnap, rape, and murder people. It took about five minutes for the cops to drop him and let him spend the next five minutes of his life waiting to be executed for all the raping and murdering.


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Alternative Title(s): Secret Community Service


Solo's Backstory

The Russian handler explains Napoleon Solo's past: an American soldier turned criminal turned top CIA agent after he was caught.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

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Main / BoxedCrook

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