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Trading Bars for Stripes

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"It's your choice. Keep your uniform, or trade it for mine."

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

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

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

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

May overlap with Army of Thieves and Whores, Legion of Lost Souls and/or Reformed Criminal. Also a subtrope of Consequence Combo, as you either fight for The Government and clear your record, or do time. The inverse is From Camouflage to Criminal, where someone turns to a life of crime after leaving the military.

Not to be confused with the rare but perfectly acceptable practice of American junior officers — who wear gold or silver bars — resigning their commissions and enlisting.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Ghost in the Shell: Arise, Motoko recruits Batou, Saito, and Ishikawa into her squad (a group of independent contractors working for the Japanese government on cyberterrorism cases) by getting them immunity for trying to steal state secrets and post them on the Internet in order to clear their CO's name from war crimes charges.

    Comic Books 
  • An extreme example in Asterix: A soldier recalls how he was given the choice of crucifixion or being assigned to Corsica.
    "You know the army. You ask for one thing and they do the opposite."
  • An Italian Disney comic had Big Bad Pete sentenced to join the police in lieu of prison time, the judge's reasoning being that multiple prison sentences had failed to change his behaviour so it was time to try and make him experience how it was being on the other side of the law.
  • Hunter's Hellcats, a feature in DC's Our Fighting Forces, was a pretty direct riff on The Dirty Dozen, a WWII special forces unit made up of soldiers convicted of various crimes. In this case, the cons' expertise was usually limited to the stuff they were already good at before they were drafted—Snake Oil, for instance, was a con man who also happened to be fluent in six languages, including German and Japanese.
  • Pathfinder Origins issue 2: Seelah, a paladin of Iomedae and a Reformed Criminal herself, releases two condemned murderers for extra muscle when she and Kyra go to clear out a vampire infestation. She plans to take them north to the Mendevian Crusades with her afterward, but neither man survives the mission.
  • Special Forces has Felony, an 18-year-old delinquent who was got to choose between a long prison term and military service. The series takes place during the Iraq War, but the fact that this is an unusual practice for the time is mentioned—Felony would never have gotten the offer if it weren't for a recruiting officer at his wits' end trying to make a quota.
  • In Sturmtruppen, the two guys of the 27th Armoured Battalion (of Discipline) often mention they've been at the Legreis Detention Center for some time, and got out by taking part in extremely dangerous missions. Even after that they have been in a penal battalion for an undisclosed amount of time before joining the featured unit.
  • This is the premise of the DCU's Suicide Squad. Convicted supercriminals are offered a choice: serve their time in Belle Reeve or the like, or join a crew running a Suicide Mission on behalf of the US government. If they survive and succeed, they regain their freedom. Ironically, when this rather illegal arrangement was revealed, the team's organizer was arrested for war crimes and given the same offer herself.
  • In Truth: Red, White & Black, one of the black test subjects for the Super Soldier serum was Maurice Canfield, a young man with a moneyed background and strong socialist leanings. When he was arrested for taking part in an anti-war protest, his family's reputation allowed him the option to join the military rather than serve jail time. Implicitly, were it not for this incident he would have used his money to avoid the draft altogether.
  • Also directly inspired by The Dirty Dozen, an issue of Tomahawk saw the title character assigned to lead a six-man team of infamous criminals pressed into service for the Continental Army. At first, each plotted to kill Tomahawk and escape (and two of them actually tried it). Three of them died on the ensuing mission, each in such a heroic fashion that the remaining three vowed to be good guys from that point on.

    Fan Works 
  • Equestria Girls: Friendship Souls: As it turns out, Quincy have their own penal company called Strafbattalion. Twilight directly compares it to companies used by Germans in World War Two, but Sombra notes that the idea is much older than that, and Quincy are much more lenient in handling it. When a Quincy commits a crime (be it cowardice in battle, theft, or dealing with drugs) they're given a choice; being stripped of their powers and send to a guarded colony, or join Straffbattalion stationed in Hueco Mundo. After four years of service, they can rejoin the Quincy Ranks.
  • The Ranma ½ fanfic Adulthood of a Modern Dynasty has a Jerkass named Kamajirou who shows up early on. He turns up later as part of the trainees for the newly formed Anything Goes Task Force. When asked what he's doing here, he explains he committed crimes, but the judge offered him a commuted sentence if he agreed to join up with the Japanese military.
  • Fanon implies this to be the case with Walter "Doc" Hartford in Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. The series covered almost nothing about his background, Word of God says he enlisted "reluctantly," and seeing as the man is a first-rate Con Artist and the best computer hacker in the known galaxy, it was easy enough to draw the conclusion.
  • In Along Came a Spider, Mechwarrior Diana is given the choice between prisoner of war camp or fighting for her captors. Her only reservation is that she's not sure she'd be able to fight against her biological father.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic/Ciaphas Cain crossover Blueblood: Hero of Equestria, many of the 1st Night Guard Regiment were recruited in this manner due to lack of volunteers (what with the whole swearing allegiance to the Princess that used to be Nightmare Moon). Most notably Captain Blitzkrieg of the pegasus company, who is fanatically loyal to Luna for saving him from life in prison.
  • In A Brighter Dark, with the war between Nohr and Hoshido requiring as many able-bodied soldiers as possible, King Garon starts recruiting death row inmates to fill out Nohr's military ranks, including Hans, a convicted murderer and rapist.
    Hans: "...on account of the war, his highness implemented a new policy; prisoners are given an option, the rope or the service. I chose the service."
  • In Loved and Lost, an extended retelling of the 2nd season finale of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Prince Jewelius seizes Equestria's throne by using the disastrous Changeling invasion to turn the public against the princesses, Shining Armor and Twilight's friends. After banishing them all, he finds out that most of the Royal Guards who were injured during the invasion still swear loyalty to the dismantled princesses. Ordering them to be murdered in their sickbeds, he fills the greatly decreased ranks by recruiting criminals from Canterlot's dungeons, bribing them to be loyal to himself.
  • Red Fire, Red Planet: Two members of the IKS mupwI''s crew are criminals conscripted into the Klingon Defense Force.
    • Norigom, the Nausicaan operations officer, was conscripted from Rura Penthe on a recommendation from Ambassador Alexander Rozhenko.note 
    • Meromi Riyal, the Orion first officer, made a deal with the House of Chel'toK. She gives them five years' service in the House fleet, and if she survives she gets a full pardon and citizenship. She tries to renege, they hand her over to Imperial Security, who want her head (literally). Related stories specify that Meromi is an escaped child Sex Slave who became a gunrunner.
  • SAPR: After her identity as a former White Fang terrorist is revealed, Blake is arrested. To keep her from going to prison, the Atlesian military offers her the opportunity to join up with them as a penal conscript. She accepts. By the time of the Vytal Tournament she has decided that when the terms of her conscription are up, she’s going to enlist in the Atlesian military for real.
  • In Mythos Effect, the beginning of Chapter 25 has a Turian executed for rape and attempted murder at the POW camp. Adrien is told that Digeris attempted to make up for manpower shortage by recruiting criminals. The results were... mixed.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Aliens, Smartgun partners Pvt. Drake and Pvt. Vasquez both were given the chance to join the Colonial Marine Corps out of juvenile prison instead of serving a long sentence for unmentioned crimes. This is All There in the Manual though, it's never brought up in the actual film.
  • Ava: The opening credits show that Ava was an overachieving honor roll student when she was involved in a serious car accident while driving under the influence. She ended up joining the Army to get away from her toxic family and the booze and drugs, winding up in Special Forces.
  • In Blood In Blood Out, Paco joins the Marines instead of going to prison. This happens when the police arrest him after taking part in the assault on the rival gang that sees their leader getting murdered by his brother Miklo.
  • Part of the back-story of the hero in the movie Bobby Z. After some time in juvie, he did a "court mandated stint in the Marines" where he gets a medal and a dishonorable discharge.
  • The 1927 silent film with Laurel and Hardy Duck Soup had the duo in a similar predicament much like the scenario described below in the Real Life section. Police were rounding up vagrants to fight forest fires; Laurel and Hardy run inside a mansion to hide from them. By the end of the film, they get chased out, end up in the clutches of the authorities and are sent to fight fires.
  • Female Agents: Jeanne has been convicted of murdering her pimp and sentenced to death. She agrees to become an SOE operative in return for a stay of execution. She is later hanged by the Nazis in Ravensbruck.
  • In Gun Crazy, Bart enlisted in the army straight out of reform school. His friends are surprised when he leaves, as they had all assumed he was going to be a career soldier.
  • Played with during the first Police Academy film. Carey Mahoney only joins the police academy (rather than the military) because it was that or jail time. Even then, he was only given the option because an old friend of his deceased dad (a highly respected police officer) pulls some strings to give him one last chance. However, it should be noted that the plan wasn't to make him a cop, but to several months of strict discipline in the hopes of straightening him out - essentially shipping a post-college man to military school the way the archetypal unruly 80s teenager would.
  • In Posse, the lead character was sentenced by a judge to lifetime enlistment in the Army. In real life, this is not only impossible under under U.S. law but pretty ridiculous.
  • In Private Benjamin, one of the other trainees in boot camp was apparently this trope. After she flipped off the drill sergeant behind her back (during the typical "first day at training" scene), sarge says that she'll soon wish she'd chosen Attica.
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II sees the title hero being released from prison on the condition that he complete a mission for the US government to find American prisoners still being held in Vietnam.
  • When Barney and Luke are caught trying to rob a bank in Sky Bandits, the sheriff hands them over to the local recruiting sergeant rather than sending them for trial. They are shipped straight off to the front lines of WWI.
  • Star Trek (2009): Captain Pike mentions while giving James T. Kirk a Dare to Be Badass speech that Kirk is "the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest"—though given it's Starfleet we're talking about, his criminal record probably isn't anything too bad.
  • In Swing Kids after Peter is caught stealing a radio, he's given the option of being sent to a work camp or joining the Hitler Youth.
  • In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine and Sabertooth are sentenced to execution because of some trouble Sabertooth got them into. Of course, it doesn't work, and Col. Striker recognizes them as mutants because of it. They're given the choice of life in prison or joining his black ops mutant group to work on his vanity projects. They choose the latter, though Wolverine later defects without any real (legal) consequence.
  • Subverted in the Australian comedy Mr Reliable. Due to a series of misunderstandings the main character, an ex-con in the late 1960s, has found himself trapped in his girlfriend's house with the authorities convinced that he's holding her hostage, and events have gradually snowballed into making him seem like a hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement. To neutralise him, the authorities make a deal that if he agrees to sign up for military service, they'll drop any charges. Unfortunately, when he goes to enlist, it's discovered that he's illiterate, and so the army rejects him. However, the police chief is a Reasonable Authority Figure who's figured out the misunderstanding and lets him go anyway, since the main character technically kept his end of the bargain.

  • In 1632 series Mike Stearns and James Nichols bond over having this in common. Mike avoided jail for his youthful offenses by joining the army. James was given a choice between going to Vietnam or going to jail. James admits, though, that he can't resent the judge for the ultimatum, since he probably would have ended up as a gang member otherwise, instead of eventually becoming a successful surgeon.
    Did the judge give you a choice? Between the Army and the Marines, I mean.
  • Aeon 14 sub-series Rikas Marauders. Rika is convicted of stealing military hardware by a Kangaroo Court (she actually stole a crate of food, but Genevian intelligence doctored the security footage) and given the option of military service in the war with the Nietzscheans instead of execution. She unsurprisingly agrees and is cyborgized into a "mech".
  • In Alexis Carew the New London Royal Navy regularly recruits crewmen from jails, usually without giving them a choice in the matter (see Real Life).
    • Alan in Into the Dark was recruited from jail, and sexually assaults Alexis while drunk. After fighting him off, she lies to spare him from hanging and he swears off drinking and becomes a model sailor. He eventually acts as The Mole when a Space Pirate overpowers Alexis's prize crew, saving her life, and is killed in the process of regaining control of the ship. Someone later remarks that the man he was pre-Alexis would have gone over to the pirates for real.
    • In HMS Nightingale, Alexis, now a lieutenant in command of a customs corvette, uses her power of impressment as a favor to a local magistrate to take some repeat offenders off his hands.
  • Atonement: Robbie Turner gets falsely accused of having raped a 15-year-old girl and is sent to prison. He's given the choice to join the army and invade WWII Europe. His lover Cecilia promises to wait for him. Both of them die before ever seeing each other again.
  • Bazil Broketail: It's mentioned that some Argonathi soldiers are convicts who join the legions in lieu of serving long sentences.
  • The Bio Of A Space Tyrant series by Piers Anthony. In "Mercenary", Hope Hubris wants to join the Jupiter military but he's two years underage, so has to work as a migrant worker in a space farm. Then when the workers riot against their conditions, the magistrate forcibly conscripts him into the military. Hope tells the magistrate he's underage, but it turns out a couple of Hope's friends have made false affidavits claiming he's lying about his age to avoid military service.
  • Ciaphas Cain:
    • In For the Emperor, Cain takes part in a Court Martial that sentences six troopers from his regiment to death for their part in an on-ship Bar Brawl that resulted in several deaths. However, Cain Rules Lawyers the sentence for morale reasons: the troopers will be transferred to a penal legion at earliest convenience (to die in service to the Imperium), and in the meantime will be made available for any Suicide Mission that happens to come up (they're eventually used to back up himself and Amberley Vail during an investigation of the undercity on Gravalax).
    • In The Last Ditch, Cain mentions his strong suspicion that this trope is the reason Corporal Magot is in the Imperial Guard. (Though she can't have done anything too bad, since she didn't get dumped in a penal legion.)
  • Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium novel West of Honor. After Harlan Slater's father dies he tries to run the family ranch but doesn't know all of the legal procedures he has to follow. When the government tries to take possession of the ranch he resists and is arrested. The judge on the case is an old friend of his father and arranges to get him into the CoDominium Military Academy. Harlan ends up as an officer in the CoDominium Marines.
  • In The General Series, Descott regiments have a fair number of recruits who joined because they run afoul of the law. Bufford Parish is infamous for this and any recruit from there is most likely a poacher and thief who barely escaped getting hanged.
  • Ignite the Stars: The outlaw Ia Cocha is given a choice between serving in the Star Force or going to Moon 42. She reluctantly chooses the former, and starts plotting to escape as soon as she reaches the academy.
  • In Lady Knight, the fourth in the Protector of the Small series, one squadron of soldiers assigned to serve under Kel is made up of convicts, many of whom had been doing forced labour in a mine before the war broke out. It's implied that serving in the army offers slightly higher chance of survival than mining does.
  • In the McAuslan series of short stories, George MacDonald Fraser describes a soldier offered remission of a prison sentence provided he enlisted in the Army. Dand McNeill drily states that when this particular man was called up, the Maritime Division of the Glasgow Constabulary held a celebratory party. This soldier, along with another enlisted under similar circumstances, deserts in Tripoli and McNeill is tasked with recapturing them.
  • The Occupation Saga: Between Worlds starts with main character Jason Linford being offered a choice between jail time or enlisting in the Shil'vati Imperial Marines after a video of him knocking an off-duty Shil'vati soldier on her ass in a Bar Brawl goes viral on the internet. Under normal circumstances the offense wouldn't have rated either penalty, but Vichy Earth's Imperial governor wants to make an example of him to keep the incident from emboldening La Résistance.
  • Animal Mother in The Short-Timers, a Vietnam War era novel by Gustav Hasford, was given a choice between prison and the Marine Corps. He came to regret his choice.
    "Back in Queens I took me a ride in this Lincoln Continental. It was a beautiful machine. The judge gave me a choice between the Crotch and hard time in a stone hotel. So I became a mercenary. I should have gone to prison, New Guy. There's less humping."
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: A variation on this is implemented with the Night's Watch, which guards the massive Wall at the edge of the known world against threats from beyond. Since the Watch is perpetually low on men, many thieves, rapists, murderers and other criminals in Westeros are often offered a choice: face their punishment, or "take the black" and join the Night's Watch for life. This is actually the antithesis of what the Watch used to be; thousands of years ago many men would volunteer to take the black, but nowadays the Night's Watch is only seen as guarding against the barbarians beyond the Wall instead of ice monsters and their zombie thralls, and is only a tenth of the strength it used to be. This practice also causes a signficant internal issue for the Watch: the majority of its forces consists of criminals who joined solely because it was the only alternative to a death sentence, meaning that few of them even vaguely want to be there or care particularly about its nonimal goals. Desertion is a constant problem, morale and discipline are poor, and large tracts of the Watch are always a bad week away from open mutiny.
  • StarCraft:
    • StarCraft: The Terran campaign novelization Liberty's Crusade has a female Marine assigned to be the bodyguard/minder of the protagonist (a journalist embedded with the Confederate military's Alpha Squadron). She's eventually revealed to be a former Serial Killer who flayed her victims alive with a kitchen knife; when she witnesses firsthand what the Zerg do to their victims, the stress starts to unravel her neural resocialization. She loses it completely when she gets trapped by Zerg and goes to town on them with a knife until she ends up Half The Woman She Used To Be.
    • StarCraft: The Dark Templar Saga: Exploited. After Jake and Rosemary are imprisoned by the Dominion, Zamara, the protoss archivist now sharing Jake's body, uses her psionics to undo the neural resocialization of one of the soldiers guarding them to create a diversion. He turns out to have been a cannibal.
  • Track, by Jerry Ahern: The title character mentions this while lecturing on his Back Story. He says this was during the Vietnam War so "they were taking anyone who could walk in those days".
  • Wearing the Cape: This is the military's big way to get supers, given that too few breakthroughs either want to join or are already in the forces (despite special programs designed to trigger them).

    Live-Action TV 
  • 30 Rock: Referenced. Tracy Jordan is forced to record a PSA, saying that he can't turn down community service, "'cause if I do, that judge is gonna make me join the Coast Guard".
  • The Barrier: Carlos is made to do dirty work for the Police State in exchange of having his mother provided for and his girlfriend not getting arrested despite the fact that she's the actual perpetrator of the crime that got Carlos arrested in the first place.
  • Castle (2009): One episode reveals that Detective Javier Esposito has a juvie record. A school teacher got him straightened out, and he went on to become a Special Forces sniper and eventually an NYPD homicide detective.
  • The Equalizer (2021): McCall reveals to her daughter that as a teenager she stole a car, and was given the opportunity to join the military rather than go to prison by a kind judge who was willing to look past her priors and give her a chance.
  • Fire Country follows a group of prisoners who volunteer for a penal fire battalion in exchange for reduced sentences.
  • The TV series Garrison's Gorillas chronicled the adventures of a group of convicts recruited into the U.S. Army by the offer of a post-war parole. Commanded by West Point graduate, Lt. Garrison, the "Gorillas" functioned as commandos behind Nazi lines.
  • Parodied in The Goodies episode "Scoutrageous". Tim is arrested for being a scout, but is let off by the judge because he went to a good school. Deeply shamed, he joins the only organisation left for people like him: the Salvation Army (which, in the world of The Goodies, functions as an actual armed force).
  • Comes up occasionally in JAG, usually as a defendant's backstory. Coates was the most prominent example.
    • In one episode, the protagonists have to deal with a perp who, it turns out, was allowed to enlist instead of going to jail. This has been illegal since the Vietnam War, and she certainly doesn't want to be in the Navy, so the protagonists go before a judge to get her off their hands. Eventually, she decides that she wants to stay in the Navy and is allowed to, taking the Navy punishment for her recent crime.
  • Luke Cage (2016): When Luke was young, he and his friend (actually his half-brother) Willis stole a car for a joyride. Luke's father, an influential preacher, talked the judge into sending Luke into the Marines to straighten him out. He joined Force Recon and later went into law enforcement. Willis received no such aid from his father and was sent to juvenile detention, his Start of Darkness.
  • In Person of Interest, John Reese implied in one episode that this was how he ended up in the Army, a career which he apparently enjoyed enough to reenlist in, seeing as he ultimately left the Army as a mid-ranked Sergeant in Special Forces, and later went on to join the CIA.
  • In Power Rangers S.P.D., this is how Jack and Z join the team. In this particular case, they were minor criminals, and Cruger secretly knew they got their powers from the same experiment that gave the other existing Rangers theirs. Even after they joined, however, he did make sure they did some community service for their crimes, which mostly consisted of washing the couple hundred windows of the S.P.D. headquarters.
    Cruger: I see potential in you. You can serve your time in prison, or you can become part of something bigger. Something that really makes a difference.
  • Space: Above and Beyond has an unusual example: Cooper Hawkes ended up getting arrested for a fight with a group of thugs who had tried to hang him in an alleyway for being an InVintro. The Judge ruled that he should be sent to the Marine Corps... to receive a commission as a Second Lieutenant and training as a space fighter pilot, as opposed to being an enlisted rifleman. Another Marine who features briefly was likewise recruited from jail, but ended up being executed for murdering a general. (This is a massive case of Artistic License – Military: even when the US armed forces did recruit from jail, they didn't make them officer candidates, and in any case the practice was abolished by Congress decades before the series aired, never mind its 2060s setting.)
  • Star Trek:
    • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager Tom Paris was recruited by Captain Janeway from a New Zealand penal colony for a dangerous mission into the Badlands to help find a Maquis raider. Played with in that to the characters it was supposed to be a downplayed Boxed Crook situation (help with one specific mission, and you'll get help with your sentence), but then Voyager ended up stuck on the other side of the galaxy, and 'help with one mission' ended up becoming 'pilot and all-around expert for seven years straight'. By the time they got back his sentence had apparently become a non-issue, probably because he'd originally been jailed for involvement in terrorist attacks against the Cardassians, whom the Federation were at war with for much of Voyager's sojourn in the Delta Quadrant.
      • And speaking of the Maquis, the relaunch novels reveal that because of the war, The Federation gave them a general pardon in exchange for fighting the Cardassians. When Voyager returns home, the same pardon is extended to Chakotay and the other Maquis aboard.
    • In Star Trek: Discovery, Michael Burnham is dishonorably discharged and given a life sentence for mutiny at the end of the second episode. Captain Gabriel Lorca of USS Discovery gives her a reprieve in exchange for her help ending the war with the Klingons, which she helped start. Somewhat unusually for the trope, Burnham tells Ash Tyler it's only a temporary reprieve: once the war's over, she will go back to prison. She doesn't: at the end of the season she's pardoned and reinstated in Starfleet.

  • Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA" from the album of same name: "Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man".
  • Tom Lehrer's "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", from An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, includes the tale of Pete, who stabbed a cop and went into the army instead of going to jail. He was pleased with the deal, because it gave him access to better weapons.
  • The line "Got a letter in the mail / Go to war or go to jail" appears in military marching cadences every now and then.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech has the Draconis Combine's Legions of Vega. They have the reputation for this in comparison to the bushido-oriented regular army units. This is subverted, however, with the Ghost Regiments, which, while primarily made up of Yakuza units, are actually cases of Recruiting the Criminal, playing off the Even Evil Has Standards trope, particularly when the Clans arrive.
  • One of the old standards for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Either an individual character (usually a rogue) is paroled by the justice system to serve under another player to justify them going along with an alignment-inappropriate plot, or the entire party is pressed into service as penance for a crime by the local sheriff (said crime possibly being a frame job specifically to get them to work for free). Can be used as a form of Rail Roading if employed to force a party that's been wandering back on track.
  • Under some rules, characters in En Garde! will be sentenced to serve in a frontier regiment as punishment for their crimes, or as a condition for having a death sentence commuted.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Since there's no shortage of capital crimes in the Imperium of Man, criminals sentenced to death are often given the choice to join a penal legion rather than being executed. Usually they're used as Cannon Fodder, but The Last Chancers novel series concerns a legion composed of convicts with skills that make them more useful (for instance, the viewpoint character is ex-Imperial Guard).
  • Mutant Chronicles: The Capitol megacorp offers non-citizens and its own criminals a chance to gain citizenship and a clean rap sheet if they serve 10 years in the Freedom Brigades.
  • Unhallowed Metropolis has the Penal Corps, comprised of criminals who have been sentenced to a four-year term of service in the Deathwatch. They're known as the Suicide Corps to both Deathwatch regulars and civilians alike, and are given shoddy surplus rifles and the bare minimum of training needed to know where to point them. However, if a convict somehow manages to survive their four-year term, then they are officially pardoned of their crimes and invited to join the Deathwatch as a private soldier.

  • The file card for Stake Out, one of the characters in the Action Force SAS line of action figures, states that he was convicted of armed robbery and released from prison specifically on the proviso that he join Action Force.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown's main campaign primarily revolves around the Osean 444th fighter squadron, an "unofficial" squadron of convicts and the like who the higher-ups are apparently quite happy to use as more "expendable" than a proper squadron.
  • In Aliens: Fireteam Elite Staff Sergeant Park Han-Jae joined the Colonial Marines as part of the Alternate Judicial Service Program to expunge his criminal record. Even in the Marines he's still a Friend in the Black Market for the crew of the Endeavour and runs not only the conventional store but also procures items based on reputation. He also is ''not'' running a still somewhere on the ''Endeavour'', really. It's ganjang from an old family recipe.
  • Alien Swarm: Wolfe was a convict who was turned into a soldier, and because he outperformed the others and enjoyed working as a solider, he permanently joined the Special ops as a soldier and left his criminal life behind.
  • This is how Elliot Salem of Army of Two joined the Army. He was in a gang as teenager and decided to enlist rather than serve time in jail.
  • The Soviet faction in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 field Flak Troopers, convicted criminals still in their chains. They'll comment that their current situation "beats being in the Gulag".
  • Dragon Age:
    • Appears in Dragon Age: Origins with the Grey Wardens' Right of Conscription. In fact, Duncan (the current Warden Commander of Ferelden) and Daveth (one of the Warden recruits) were both recruited this way, to escape being executed for murder and thievery, respectively. Can also be the backstory of the player character: for example, the City Elf story usually starts with them killing the heir of the Arl of Denerim, along with most of his household guard, for kidnapping and attempting to gang-rape several women at their wedding (including the Player Character herself if female).
    • Can also be invoked by the player character to recruit Teryn Loghain instead of executing him, as well as Nathaniel Howe (who tries to kill the PC to avenge his father) and Anders (an apostate mage) in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening.
    • In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the real Blackwall conscripted Thom Rainier this way after he and his men assassinated a noble family. Blackwall was killed by Darkspawn while he and Thom were gathering the blood needed for Thom's Joining. Thom, feeling guilty about his past crimes and inspired by Blackwall, and not knowing that he had proof of his conscription, took up the Warden's name.
    • Possibly the case with the Inquisitor. They can ask Leliana and Cassandra if they're being forced to work with the Inquisition. Leliana points out that while the Inquisition has confirmed that the Inquisitor is innocent, the rest of the world has not, so they really have no alternatives.
  • The Elder Scrolls: It's a bit of a Running Gag that the Player Character is almost always a prisoner freed from jail to serve the Empire covertly (the exception being The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall).
    • In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the Player Character is a convict from the Imperial City Prison released on the authority of the Emperor himself to the eponymous backwater province under the condition that you join up with the Blades. Of course, given the series' Wide-Open Sandbox nature, there's nothing actually forcing you to join up once you are released. You are perfectly free to wander off and explore the setting however you want.
    • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the player character is a convict who happens to be in a cell containing the door to a hidden escape route when the emperor attempts to escape an assassination. As in Morrowind, the player is recognised as a prophesied figure from the emperor's dreams and recruited into the Blades.
    • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a slightly weaker version. The player character is again a prisoner, but this time simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is never actually convicted of a crime. The tutorial section introduces two factions of a civil war, but while both suggest the player should join up to fight once they escape, doing so is actually a side-quest that can be avoided entirely rather than being forced from the start.
  • Grim Dawn has the Black Legion, comprised of criminals of all sorts within the Erulan Empire. Since it's a penal legion it was largely overlooked by the Aetherials infiltrating the Empire's nobility, and following the Grim Dawn it forms the core of La Résistance.
  • Part of Vito Scaletta's backstory in Mafia II is joining the army to avoid jail time after he's caught stealing, then did the inverse once he comes back and resumes being a criminal and joins the Mafia.
  • In Neverwinter Nights 2, your character is given control of a militia unit. If you want you can set the recruitment policy to 'give criminals amnesty if they'll join up', which results in more troops but worse discipline.
  • Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent: The Scarlet Wings consists primarily of criminals that Tytos apprehended and forcibly recruited into the organization.
  • Back when Overwatch was still considered a legal international task force, they busted a bunch of Arms Dealers known as the Deadlock Gang, and recognizing the potential one particular member had, they offered Cole Cassidy a choice between enlisting in their black-ops division or doing time in maximum security prison. It ended up working out incredibly well for them, as Cassidy became a Reformed Criminal - even going so far as to take back his original name a few years after Overwatch fell as one final "fuck you" to the Deadlock Gang.
  • In Sabres of Infinity, after the initial year or so of war, the Unified Kingdom of Tierra runs out of volunteers for the army, but mass conscription is considered out of the question due to the damage it'd do to Tierra's economy. Instead, Tierra empties the prisons out into the army...around the time that the player is given a troop to command.
  • Shin Gihren's Greed: In Amuro Ray's story, the White Base manages to successfully reach Earth Federation HQ Jaburo in South America (unlike in canon, where the White Base came down in North America and forced to fight their way down to Jaburo). However, once there a Federation officer reluctantly informs them that while they're grateful for Amuro and the other civilian volunteers for helping to man the White Base, they're also civilians who learned military secrets (i.e. the existence of the Gundam and other V Project machines) and would normally be sentenced to life imprisonment or death note . The officer does offer a solution: since the issue is they were civilians who learned military secrets, if they were actually part of the military then there wouldn't be an issue. He then asks if Amuro is willing to enlist. Saying yes results in Amuro, Kai Shiden and Hayato Kobayashi being assigned to the Federation base in Madras, India, and equipped with a Ground Combat Gundam and Ground Combat GMs, while saying no is a Nonstandard Game Over.
  • StarCraft: Terran soldiers are often "neurally resocialized" convicts, which is the process of implanting Fake Memories to alter their personalities into more socially-acceptable norms. The ones resistant to or are too crazy to be resoc-ed are given the choice of enlisting into the Reaper Corps to earn their freedom after two years of service, instead of rotting in prison or execution.
    • Tychus Findley in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a specific example who used to be a thief and an old friend of Raynor's, who was on ice for years before Emperor Mengsk thawed him out and fitted him with armor carrying a killswitch, so he could infiltrate Raynor's resistance movement and assassinate Kerrigan.
  • World of Warcraft: General Hawthorne recruited many violent criminals from the Alliance's most notorious prison, the Stockades, for the attack on the civilian filled Camp Taurajo. This foolish choice along with several other dubious decisions led to many civilian deaths.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic:
    • The Sith Warrior tutorial has the PC decide the fates of several prisoners. They can send a Professional Killer locked up for a failed hit on an Imperial spy to work for Imperial Intelligence.
    • The Sith Inquisitor was a former slave who was granted freedom and allowed (or rather, forced) to enroll in the Sith Academy after it was discovered they were Force-sensitive. Depending on a dialogue choice, the player may take this further and state that the Inquisitor was an enslaved convict.

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    Western Animation 
  • The Terrible Thunder Lizards (a segment of Eek! The Cat) were former military special forces, who were allowed their freedom on the condition that they hunted down the humans, Bill and Scooter. Their origins though play with this trope in that they were imprisoned after being falsely accused of treason. (Their backstory had the Thunder Lizards working with an enemy Thugasaur to survive behind enemy lines. They were accused of treason, which they didn't do, and were incarcerated until the start of the series.)
  • The Smart Guy Alec in Exosquad was a petty thief before joining Exofleet to clear his record.
  • In Generator Rex, Bobo Haha is an anthropomorphic monkey EVO who was a well-known criminal and nuisance to the Pre-Rex Providence, having already had run-ins with Agent Six before, and was recently captured in The Kremlin after threatening to press "The Button" unless he got one-thousand pounds of caviar. After Rex joined Providence, Bobo Haha was released into employment for Providence to help maintain a stable friendly connection with Rex and helping out on missions for Providence. In one episode, Bobo Haha was seen leading Providence Soldiers get the feel of their new Flamethrowers in-preparation for an upcoming mission.
  • In Family Guy, Peter, Cleveland, and Joe get arrested for stolen valor. The judge sentenced them to join the marines, but reduced the service to US Coast Guard. Quagmire, who is a navy vet, joins them at the urging of Ida.
  • In the The Simpsons episode "The Principal and the Pauper", it turns out that Principal Skinner, whose backstory had long had him as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, actually stole the real, MIA-and-presumed-dead Sgt. Skinner's identity on returning home. He was really a juvenile delinquent who had snatched a purse and was caught after (literally) having a run in with a judge, and was offered a choice between the Army, jail, or apologizing to the judge and old lady.
    Skinner: 'Course if I'd known there was a war going on, I probably would've apologized.

    Real Life 
  • British Royal Navy during the The Napoleonic Wars used to supplement its crews, consisting primarily of volunteers and pressed merchant sailors, with the Quota System, which in practice often resulted in inducting men who were not quite voluntary trading bars for stripes.
  • Military Penal Units.
  • There were several flavors of this in the Red Army during World War II.
    • 'Deportees', whose service earned them (back) full citizenship and rights. Deportees who had been sent to colonise Siberia as adults or children, and the children of deportees, were eligible for service in regular Red Army divisions raised from deportee populations. In the Far Eastern Military District they were conscripted into normal units alongside all other able-bodied men under 55 to maintain and expand the defensive field works and positions along the Soviet-Manchurian border. At least 50k men served in the Deportee units, as many as 200k served in units raised by the Far Eastern District and sent to fight in the European Theatre, another 100,000 may have served in the Far East.
    • Disgraced Red Army personnel whose service earned them (back) the right to serve in the Army and avoid imprisonment. Their crimes included cowardice (all ranks) or gross incompetence (Officers and NCOs). Personnel who had not escaped enemy captivity of their own volition were regarded as suspect due to reports of up to half a million Soviet POW defecting to serve the Germans as Hiwi ("Hilfswiliger") troops for "anti-Partisan" (including The Holocaust) and logistics duties. Recaptured personnel were allowed to prove their commitment to the anti-Fascist cause by serving in Shtrafbaty, Penal Batallions modelled on those of the contemporary Wehrmacht. Service terms were just 1-3 months, but permanent losses (captured, dead, crippled) averaged about 50% of the total combat forces per three months in 1941, 25% in 1942, 17% in 1943, 12% in 1944, and 5% in 1945. Shtrafbaty losses were always higher because they were used for the toughest fighting.
    • Political dissidents and criminals whose service earned them their freedom. Their crimes included criticism of the regime, petty theft, and worse. They served in regular combat and logistics units until the war's end, whereupon they were free.
      • Allegedly, some of the vory v zakone took the offer; since this sort of thing violated their code, they weren't accepted back if they survived and returned, resulting in a post-WWII period of "Bitch Wars"note  in the gulags. Interestingly, the isolation of "political prisoners" including the former Hiwis and POW-slaves whose conduct seemed suspect/could not be vouched for from the general prison population allowed some vory captured by the Germans to survive. Several of the zeks in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were suspected of collaboration with the Germans and imprisoned in such facilities, including Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (a former POW-slave) himself.
  • The US made use of this trope during the First and Second World War and even as late as The Vietnam War. It was not unusual for judges to offer this deal to those of draft age. However, this practice was banned by act of Congress at the request of the military after Vietnam, and nowadays it is very difficult to join up with a criminal record, even a juvenile one (you have to obtain a waiver, which is not easynote ). This page on even cites various official military regulations that bar any such enlistments. As for the "enlist or go to prison" option, in short the US Navy strongly discourages the practice and the other four services (Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard) outright forbid it now.
  • The Ottoman Empire had bashi-bazouks, a type of irregular soldier dating back to the 1300s. They were recruited from criminals as well as the homeless and vagrants. These irregulars did not receive a regular salary; their pay was solely whatever loot they could find or steal.
  • During World War I, to speed the "Turkey-fication" of the Ottoman Empire, the army went into prison and recruited hardened criminals and organized them into "butcher battalions," whose sole mission was to escort, and kill, as many deported Armenians as possible
  • The UK Mutiny Act of 1701/1702 stated that criminals as well as debtors, referred to as "persons of blemished character or unsettled mode of life", could be released from punishment upon agreeing to enlist.
  • The 36. Waffen-SS Grenadier Division, "Dirlewanger". Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger was a Nazi mad political scientist and Boxed Crook who proposed to form an SS unit from arrested poachers (later expanded to include all kinds of arrested criminals, including rapists, psychopaths, child molesters and murderers). Eventually, Dirlewanger became the commander of his own division, an Army of Thieves and Whores recruited from prisons and jails and infamous for cruelty. It was abhorred even within the Waffen SS, to say nothing of the people in the areas it operated. SS-General Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, who did not hesitate to spill the blood of hundreds of thousands in occupied Poland, once threatened Dirlewanger personally just because he was too disgusted with him and his army of criminals. They were used primarily as anti-partisan forces, including in suppressing the Warsaw Uprising, but critical shortages of troops had them pressed into combat fighting the Red Army advances, where most were killed. Dirlewanger himself went into hiding and was captured by the French after the war, and was beaten to death by Polish troops.
  • Konnakolmonen, 3th Jäger Company of the Pori Brigade, Finnish Army. Those conscripts with criminal records, antisocial tendencies or substance abuse problems are assigned there.
  • The Musta Nuoli (Black Arrow), 21th Autonomous Battalion of the Finnish Army, commanded by Colonel Nikke Pärmi. It was recruited amongst the felons in Finnish prisons. Colonel Pärmi said once now all killers and murderers are in the occupation in which they have education.
  • In Colin Powell's autobiography, he discusses this trope and how difficult it was to deal with, and how things have changed since the Vietnam era.
  • The spirit of this trope is still used in certain prisons around the United States. Instead of doing time, you are given ONE chance (and only one chance) to go through an extremely intense boot camp-like training from the moment you step off the prison transport from the courtroom. They put you through the wringer. You will sleep when told to sleep, eat when told to eat, eat how they tell you to eat, go to the bathroom when they tell you to and for how long, put you through intense physical training that the regular army at one point considered to be normal, but now considers to be inhumane. Basically turn you into a mindless grunt. If you can survive about 3 months of this, the state will deem you worthy of returning to normal society, and your crimes will be absolved. If you slip up even once, you will have to serve your sentence. You can generally only do this if you were sent to prison for a non-violent crime in the first place though. To put it simply: it would be easier to deal with life in prison than it is to survive this training, but if you do, you're a free man.
  • In a variation of this trope, many states in the US have been using prisoners to help fight wildfires. They only accept prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes and the work is extremely demanding and unpleasant but it still beats normal prison life.
  • During WW2, the British armed forces and merchant marine reluctantly accepted drafts from prisons, of cons offered remission or pardon provided they joined up. Most of the time this worked, after a fashion, with close supervision and intelligent management. But the Merchant Navy slipped up with a draft from the notorious Barlinnie prison in Glasgow. Despite urgent advice, men from Barlinnie who had been part of street gangs were not broken up into smaller groups and separated. One ship out of Glasgow found (having accepted the superficially reasonable argument that "mates" should be allowed to serve together) that it had two of the most vicious Glaswegian street gangs forming a significant part of its ship's company. One protestant and one Catholic, who continually fought each other as well as antagonising the ship's regular company of sailors. Extra provosts had to be drafted aboard in mid-Atlantic to prevent things completely breaking down. Once in the USA, many of the Glaswegian gangsters rioted in New York and Boston, straining relations between the USA and Great Britain. Many simply deserted and joined New York gangs, bringing Glaswegian levels of violence to a city that already had the Mafia. Sorry, USA.
  • Back during the Enlightenment era, many countries would fill their armies out with prisoners if they thought it necessary.
  • According to his interviews, this trope is how the late R. Lee Ermey joined the United States Marine Corps: after getting in trouble during his teen years, a judge offered him the choice between prison or enlistment.
  • During the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner Group recruited from prisons to fill out its ranks, promising those who completed their tour of duty that they would released from the remainder of their sentences. Many wouldn't make it back (alive) to Russia, especially due to the "human waves" thrown at the Ukrainians in Bakhmut. While at least a couple of those who made it back immediately returned to their prior life of crime. After the Wagner group fell into disgrace and ended up absorbed by the Russian army in 2023, the Russian army itself has kept that practice going due to Vladimir Putin still not wanting to fully enforce general conscription in the most populated Russian areas, and again to use as cannon fodder to to exhaust Ukrainian defenses.


Video Example(s):


Flak Trooper

Burly convicts forced to carry heavy anti-air flak cannons and satchels of violent mines.

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Main / TradingBarsForStripes

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