All Crimes Are Equal

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Mobsters beating up a shopkeeper for protection money! Very naughty. Shopkeepers not paying their protection money -- exactly as naughty!"
Robot Santa, Futurama

This is what happens if The Empire is run by a bunch of Lawful Stupid people afflicted with Black and White Insanity.

In fiction, if an empire or government is meant to be seen as evil, any crime, no matter how minor, is punished with the same brutal force. Most often this manifests itself in that speaking a bad word about the emperor (or being even tangentially suspected of helping a rebel in any way, even unknowingly) has you put to death, imprisoned for life, mind-wiped or punished in a similarly excessive way.

The problem, however, is that if suggesting the emperor is fallible carries a death sentence, what do you do with traitors? Murderers? Spies? Bank robbers? Jaywalkers? One has to assume that every crime imaginable is punished in this same way (although The Caligula may feel that disagreeing with him deserves a more harsh punishment than robbery), which sort of defeats the purpose; heck, one would almost expect petty criminals to then "go for broke" and commit much worse crimes, knowing it's the same to them. Certainly, this method of governance has a great tendency towards generating rebels, since a minor disagreement brands you with the traitors anyways; as long as you're screwed, why not fight the power that so unjustly attacked you? (In both fiction and real life, this frequently resulted in a variety of Fates Worse Than Death for the big crimes).

Often this extends beyond actual crimes, and any slipup in the presence of the ruler, such as speaking out of turn or disagreeing with him, will have you put to death. Conversely, this may be used by the Knight Templar; in that case, you can at least be assured that he will only kill you for actual crimes (or at least suspected actual crimes). A very common view for a Hanging Judge. When this happens in the afterlife, see Easy Road to Hell.

Can lead to the reaction "What Do You Mean It's Not Heinous?". One stock punishment is to use the criminals as a Condemned Contestant.

Examples of All Crimes Are Equal include:

Anime & Manga

  • Light from Death Note really had only one punishment to give out, and he used it on various criminals, and anyone who stood in his way. Before the series is out, we see such things as people committing suicide by graffiti. Not to mention the purse-snatcher he sentences to death at one stage. He follows the logic of "kill the worst criminals, whoever they may be". As the killings caused drops in crime rates, the "worst" criminals became petty robbers and such. He was eventually planning to kill people for being lazy. Teru Mikami actually did this, and Light's only complaint was that it was way ahead of schedule.
  • The former king of Hou in The Twelve Kingdoms used to execute people for such crimes as being unable to work due to sickness and for wearing a comb in your hair outside. After he executed three hundred thousand people in one year, the people rose up and overthrew him.
  • The Municipal Force Daitenzin from Excel Saga was founded by Kabapu to put an end to crime and evil in F City; once they stop a total of 10 crimes, they can break free from their suits. Only problem is, people in F City are very lawful, so in order to get their suits off, they have no choice but to consider this.
  • Oz from Pandora Hearts is sentenced to the Abyss for existing. "Oz Vessalius! Your crime... is your very existence!"
    • Subverted. Apparently, the current Oz is currently a shared existence with Jack Vessalius, who plans to send the world to the Abyss
  • In Saint Beast, Pandora tries to hint that purging an angel for a one-time minor theft is Disproportionate Retribution. Zeus disagrees and continues making an insanely long list of angels he plans to burn and banish to the netherworld.
  • Digimon Xros Wars has the Heaven Zone, enforced by the ruthless president, SlashAngemon, who is also the chief of police. Crimes punishable by public electrocution and/or death include making a public racket, defacing holy symbols of the Zone, and criticizing the police's methods.

Comic Books

  • In Gold Digger, Brianna the inventor has a series of AI-bombs called Peebos that are programmed to target bad guys. The real problem is she also made a series of mini-peebo bullets called Peebees, and their small size means they are waaay too dumb to accurately tell what's bad, blowing up things like bridges for being too unsafe or a couple for one of them stealing a kiss, and finally climaxing in a villain convincing them to target Brianna herself due to the amount of damage caused by her firing them off in the first place.
  • Turned on its head in Phil Foglio's Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire in that the only law on the planet of New Hong Kong is, and I quote, "There shall be no laws on New Hong Kong".
    • That was how New Hong Kong saved itself from the "help" of an nigh-invincible race of Lawful Stupid robotic law enforcers - by giving the robots no laws to actually enforce. But while nothing is ever formally acknowledged as law on New Hong Kong, there are quite a few local customs that the residents are very vigilant about enforcing for themselves. Often with plasma cannons.
    • In point of fact, the NORMAL operation of the Lawgivers is to vanish anyone who breaks any active law. The New Hong Kong situation developed because when the planet was being settled, a programmer hacked the Lawgiver list and added the "No New Laws" rule, which everyone promptly voted into effect. The programmer was vanished because the law against interfering with the Lawgivers was already active, but none of the other laws could ever go active, causing all the Lawgivers to leave except for one observer.
      • As it says on the sign at the spaceport, ""No laws" doesn't mean "No rules"".
  • The perspective of Rorschach from Watchmen, who views all crime from rape, murder, to petty theft and graffiti as worthy of death by himself. Very ironic with respects to Rorschach living on the fringes of society, being a murderer (among several other things) himself. Then again, it is a Deconstruction.
  • Hanging Judge Roy Bean, in his appearance in Don Rosa's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: The Prisoner of White Agony Creek. He claims that hanging is an appropriate punishment for both kidnapping a woman and accidentally making the judge spill his drink.
  • When The Punisher was first introduced as a Spider-Man villain, he was a fairly typical vigilante; targeting murderers or drug-pushers. This characterization remained the same way for his first few appearances, but eventually he gunned down people for minor infractions (jaywalking, running a red light). This was retconned in his first miniseries to him having been unknowingly drugged.
  • The 2099 alternate universe Punisher from Marvel2099 devolves into this. At first, he's killing murderous scum in reaction to his Mom and sister being murdered by crooks who got away with it. At the end of the series, sponsored by a new regime, he's gone around the bend. Among many things, the age at which someone can be tried as an adult is now in the single digits and pretty much everything is a crime punishable by whatever the hell he wants it to be (and brain scanners are used to cover bad thoughts). At one point, he expresses the desire that consensual adult sex should be punished.
  • Doctor Doom, of course, is this when he is in control of Latveria. One issue of Fantastic Four literally shows the guillotine used for anything from murder to speaking out.
  • Similar to the Charmed example below, a Green Arrow story arc had a demon summoned by an overzealous man trying to keep the peace in his city. The good news: It worked. The bad news: It worked by having the demon disable all technology more complicated than fire and also teleport out of nowhere to kill anyone who broke any law. Theft? Death! Assault? Death! Littering? Death! Green Arrow and sidekicks have to go to hilarious lengths when they arm the town's cops and mafioso (with bows and arrows, natch) and pit them as an army against the demon summoner. They get the bows by being let into stores by the owner of those stores, leaving enough money behind to cover everything they've taken, and they don't make a single move against the summoner until the entire army has been deputized by the sheriff and they've gotten a warrant. Then they go to... arrest him.
  • There have been several antagonists in Judge Dredd that have adopted more extreme views on Justice Dept.'s duties and practices. Notably, Judge Death and his cohorts come from an Alternate Universe where it was determined that since crime is only committed by the living, all life itself was made a crime punishable by death.
    • In The Movie, Judge Griffin proposes to reduce crime rate by imposing death penalty for "lesser crimes." He gets shut down by the more much wiser Chief Justice Fargo, which prompts Griffin to come up with a plan to get rid of the Council and run the city himself.
  • The Manhunters from The DCU also eventually decided that all life = crime and went on a genocidal rampage or three.
  • Played in current[when?] Batman story—Red Hood's motto is Let the punishment fit the crime, which is pretty disturbing, considering that he just kills all villains and uploads it on Internet.
  • Ever since the Registration Act was passed in Marvel Comics, any unauthorized use of superpowers gets you thrown in the Negative Zone prison for life or until you agree to work for the government, whether said powers were used to start a fire or save a baby from the fire.
    • Under Norman Osborn, this has been expanded to "Doing anything that slightly annoys him or questioning his minions in any way."
    • One comic from the FLIGHT Anthology has a group of anthropomorphic animals stumble upon the "Perfect Lemming City". Unfortunately, lemmings are so obedient and ordered (and also intuition-stupid; they need white lines on the ground to get to work) that any infraction equals death, nothing more and nothing less, INCLUDING A REFUSAL TO SIGN DEATH CERTIFICATES AFTER BEING FOUND GUILTY. Luckily, that intuition-stupid part about lemmings means that they just throw the group a few feet from the city and wait for them to stand there and die. Also, the jail has good sandwiches.
  • This is the philosphy of the Pale Horseman in Astro City. In his world view all crimes, from murder to jaywalking, warrant the same punishment: death.

Films -- Live-Action

  • Pretty much every infraction, whether major or minor, committed in the prison from Cool Hand Luke is apparently punished with "a night in the box".
    • Luke's original crime was getting drunk and cutting the heads off a town's parking meters. For this he was given two years on the chain gang.
    • The film later subverts this trope though, with the "Boss Keane's Ditch" punishment given to Luke after multiple escape attempts. Also, one assumes for more serious signs of rebellion, the guards can just leave you in the box for more than one night, as they did to Luke at one point.
  • Harrison Bergeron:

TV announcer: This is the first execution to be held under the new law passed by the board of legislators that extends capital punishment to traffic offences. Francis Narrows (?) is about to pay the ultimate price for making an illegal left turn. Besides me is Lorraine Newbound, head of the Miami chapter of the League Against Non-Capital Punishment. Now, Ms. Newbound, you are of course in favor of this new law.
Ms. Newbound: Absolutely. I just wish they would go one step further and include non moving violations.
TV announcer: Parking offences?
Ms. Newbound: Well, a crime is a crime. Why should we pay good money for jails just to keep criminals alive? Death to all crooks! (smiles in joy)

  • One of the favorite sayings of Oh Dae Su's tormentor in Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy: "Whether a stone or a grain of sand, both sink the same in water."
  • A non-governmental example: in The Dark Knight, Two-Face gives everyone who he views as partially responsible for Rachel's death the same chances of being killed, avoiding any attempt to assign varying degrees of blame to those who actually perpetrated the act versus those who merely made it possible or failed to stop it.


  • In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, the single punishment for violation of the Laws of Magic is execution by decapitation (regardless of whether the perpetrator was aware of the Laws or if they knew they were performing dark magic). The White Council justifies this by the fact that even minor dark magic perpetuates more and more dark magic use until the warlock's mind is twisted beyond recognition.
    • Though the White Council have suspended the sentence if someone is willing to speak up for the perpetrator. Both Harry and Molly Carpenter have benefited from this.
      • And they're the only ones of their respective generations. It turns out that if the person who got their sentence suspended reoffends, the sponsor also dies. This has a... discouraging effect on potential defenders of the inculpable.
    • Initially the White Council distrusted Harry because he killed his mentor with magic, which is against the First Law of Magic. In reality it was self-defense after said mentor attacked him for learning that he was going to mind-control Harry into being his slave (and had already done so with his other student), so the White Council commuted his sentence to the "Doom of Damocles" which amounts to probation, with a really eager probation officer.
      • Harry gets the Doom lifted fairly early in the series, however, meaning that while he could still be executed for breaking the Laws, he'd get a trial and his sponsor wouldn't die with him. Of course, later on he's Molly's sponsor, so he's back in much the same situation but with less control of the outcome. Then he becomes the Winter Knight and is arguably exempt from said laws, though he of course chooses not to break them because he knows he shouldn't.
  • In Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts would order people beheaded at the slightest provocation. Though no one actually gets executed, according to the Griffin: "They never executes nobody, you know." This is revealed to be because the King of Hearts always pardons them once the Queen's back is turned.
  • In Peter F. Hamilton's The Night's Dawn Trilogy, due to Earth's damaged environment and extremely high population (~40 billion), deportation is the standard penalty for nearly all crimes, "from rape to tax evasion".
  • At one point in Larry Niven's Known Space tales, almost every crime is punishable by death, including multiple traffic tickets. The reason is that due to the perfection of organ transplant technology, all state executions are done in hospitals to provide organ transplants, and to maximize their availability, nearly all crimes carried the death penalty.
  • In George Orwell's 1984, if you're a member of the Outer Party, murder, rape, theft, etc., are considered irrelevant to your crime except as evidence - the real crime is "crimethink" against the Party, for which you'll get ten years in a labor camp if you're lucky (unless, of course, that's a lie, as it often was in Stalin's Russia) - more likely, tortuous brainwashing followed distantly by execution. The "proles," for whom miniluv seemed to have a revolving door, were afraid to even talk about Outer Party "polits," much less to them, lest they suffer the same fate.
  • The White Cloaks in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time have the same punishment for theft (steal once and be whipped in public, steal twice and they'll cut off your right hand, steal thrice and you're executed) "whether you steal a loaf of bread or a king's crown."
  • In the Vonnegut novel Cat's Cradle, the island of San Lorenzo has only one punishment for any crime: death by impalement on a giant hook. (However, it's later revealed that the hook hasn't been used for several years.)
  • In Utopia, before the story about Utopia itself, there are discussions of several other nations with Meaningful Names. One of these points out the various flaws of having all crimes punished by death.
    • The specific example is that a person who robs a house will then go to any length to escape rather than consider giving up.
    • Specifically, a prospective thief has every incentive to commit murder rather than just theft—he will be no worse off if caught, and by killing the principle (or only) witness, he reduces his chances of getting caught.
  • The Lisbon Inquisition in Candide.
  • Officer Shrift from The Phantom Tollbooth regularly sentences offenders to prison terms of millions of years, merely because he can. Fortunately, he's not good at keeping track of time, so assumes that anyone who escapes his city's Cardboard Prison has served out his or her time.
  • In the first book of the Engineers trilogy, Devices and Desires, one of the main characters—Ziani Vaatzes—escapes prison after being sentenced to death. While escaping, he kills a guard with a lamp, dismembers another and decapitates a third. He then commits theft, arson, identity theft, and breaking & entering while escaping. The original crime he was sentenced to execution for? Creating a machine which contained components up to 1/8 inches off of the commercial standard—for personal use.
  • In the Harry Potter novel/movie, this trope is utilized, if not for an entire Empire, but a school. Dolores Umbridge installs thousands of restrictive rules in the school, which prohibit not only meetings which could be used to fight her authority (or, in her mind, the Ministry) but also rules which prevent girls and boys walking together.
  • Jean Valjean was originally sent to prison for having stolen a loaf of bread with an original sentence of five years. Several escape attempts later, his sentence has been extended to nineteen years, at the end of which he is released. He breaks parole and spends the next decade hunted by a dedicated gendarme, even while the French Revolution is going on. Remember, all of this is over a loaf of bread.
  • Barely subverted in the Discworld book The Wee Free Men. One of Tiffany's flashbacks relates the tale of a woman who had stolen a baby. When confronted, the woman was clearly not in her right mind and genuinely believed the baby hers. Everyone was aware of this, but the laws were clear on theft and kidnapping, and Miss Robinson would've been sent to prison regardless. Only the subtle intervention of Tiffany's Granny Aching convinced the Baron sitting in judgment to seek out an alternative option.
  • The A Series of Unfortunate Events series has the Village of Fowl Devotees, which holds the punishment for all crimes as burning at the stake. It's mentioned that even putting too many nuts on a sundae is grounds for this. But then, this is a series that really doesn't take itself seriously.
  • The people in the Mary Suetopia of Marge Piercy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time all trust each other, and there is little friction in society. How do they do that? By having very minor punishment for the first time someone commits a crime, but the second crime they commit, they execute them. Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, indeed.
  • Mack Bolan, The Executioner, kills everyone even remotely related to the mafia. Never mind that these people may have families to support. Surprisingly, he never seems to kill anyone who is innocent, such as an undercover police officer.
  • Played straight to a chilling degree in Death Star. The book starts off with the penal planet Despayre (a play on the word "despair"). Are you a murdering psychopath? You get sent there. Are you a smuggler who was in the wrong place at the wrong time? You get sent there. Are you a normal person whose only crime is guilt by association, or someone who backed the wrong candidate in an election? You get sent there. The planet is pretty much set up to have Everything Trying to Kill You. You are there for life, with no possibility for parole, and escape is very difficult at best...and impossible at worst. Only the prisoners chosen to work on the Death Star are taken off the planet, but they clearly are stuck building a giant superweapon. But wait...ItGotWorse. How so? Well, once construction of the Death Star is complete, Grand Moff Tarkin decides to celebrate its testing the Death Star's superlaser on Despayre. Conan Antonio Motti tried to point about the possible political fallout of this action. Tarkin simply blew it off, because he was convinced that everyone on the planet were just condemned criminals sentenced for life, none of those people would ever return to civilization, and all of them were an unnecessary burden on Imperial troops and resources, not to mention many Imperial alien slaves. He also wanted to see what his biggest weapon would do when he needed to use it before going into battle. Oh, and he also says that instead of imprisoning criminals, they will just use the death penalty, and that Imperial justice is about to become swift and sure. And all this was before that business with Alderaan....
    • The Empire has many other prisons and even other prison worlds, which they went back to when that whole Death Star thing didn't work out. In the Jedi Academy Trilogy and the X Wing Series we get a look at Kessel, which is a nearly airless world which doesn't have as much hostile wildlife but makes up for it by forcing inmates - the same sort of mix of murderers, members of a galactic crime syndicate, political prisoners, and people failed by Imperial justice, as well as their descendents - to work in the spice mines, harvesting the secretions of exceedingly dangerous giant spiders. The good thing about it is that, at least in the days of the Republic, you can get less than a life sentence, and at the end of it, if you've survived, you can be shipped off. If.
  • Used somewhat in the Knight and Rogue Series. Minor crimes like theft or fraud have minor punishments while major crimes like arson and murder can get you hung. Where this trope comes in is in the redemption for crimes. For the right cost, paid by another person, any crime can be 'redeemed' and the criminal becomes indebted to whoever paid for their crime until that person legally declares that debt repaid. The only exception is murder, in which case you are automatically marked 'permanently unredeemed' if not hung. Should you fail to repay your debt, which can require anything from paying the person back in cash to years of servitude, you will be marked 'permanently unredeemed', at which point you loose all legal rights and everyone will assume you're some sort of warped killer. Michael, whose crime was basically being duped, and who refuses to spend a life in servitude, is a victim of this.

Live-Action TV

  • Charmed has a Monster of the Week which killed criminals. Any criminals. Arson? You die. Murder? You die. Jaywalking? You die.
    • Another Charmed episode had the sisters unwittingly enter a distorted version of their reality. It seemed normal, until one of them encounters a traffic officer, who shoots Phoebe in the stomach because of a minor parking violation. Death or limb-removal is pretty much the only punishment for any "crime," up to and including being a potty-mouth.
    • In the same episode, the sun never goes down, and when one of the girls comments in the hospital that it's 10PM at night, and it's not dark. The entire hospital gasps and turns murderous until she says it's a joke.
      • Also, someone points out that there are no cellphones in the hospital... He points to his arm missing a hand.
  • A variation's presented in an early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where crime on a particular planet is only punished within one randomly selected zone at a time—but the punishment for any crime within that zone is death, with no mitigating circumstances allowed, and the planet is kept idyllic by nobody daring to take the risk. Audiences might not mind, since Wesley is the one who runs afoul of the law, but the horrified crew eventually convinces the Sufficiently Advanced Alien that's enforcing the planet's law to at least let them safely leave.
  • Stargate Atlantis. In "Condemned", the Olesian government banishes most criminals to a remote island to be culled by the Wraith. Long ago, the Wraith agreed not to cull Olesia's general population as long as the Olesians keep the island sufficiently populated. The only reason All Crimes Are Equal at the time of the story is that banishment had proven such an effective deterrent to serious crimes over the years that in order to keep the island populated, the government had to continually expand the list of crimes punishable by banishment.
    • Then the Wraith all wake up at once and decide they need more than the island's usual supply. Causing the government to go on an arresting spree.
  • A MacGyver episode combines this with the Corrupt Hick trope to create a plot wherein a town in the Deep South uses their "justice" system to recruit workers for a mine said to contain treasure.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has the season 2 episode "Paradise", where Sisko and O'Brien get stranded on a planet with a community of similarly-stranded colonists lead by a Luddite woman. Making an example of people who commit offenses against the community means getting put in a metal box in the hot sun for hours, whether the crime is petty theft or wasting time trying to get off the planet. Then subverted when it turns out that the woman really is just crazy and manipulative. Trying to get off the planet is a crime because it would reveal that she sabotaged all their chances of escape with another piece of tech.
  • iCarly: Punishment for anything bad is detention, no matter how small. Occasionally subverted by adding extra punishments like having to do star jumps or washing the teacher's car as well.
  • Parks and Recreation's portrayal of Venezuela.
  • The Judoon from Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures threaten execution for murder, physical assault, obstruction of justice, and playing music too loudly.
  • Garrow's Law takes place in the time of the "Bloody Code", during which 220 crimes carried a penalty of death under English law. Garrow, being the Ur Example of a defence lawyer, naturally has to have his wits about him. For further details, see the Real Life section below.



Jungle Club MC: You are aware of the policy?... If you perform well, you live. If you play badly, the penalty is death. If the crowd dislikes you in any way, death. If the gig goes badly, death. If it starts out well and then goes a bit shaky, death. Enjoy the gig!


Recorded and Stand-Up Comedy

  • Brian Regan mentioned that the lamest crime ever is loitering and that the worst is manslaughter. He imagined two inmates in the same cell, one for either crime.

Inmate 1: So what are you in for?
Inmate 1: Loitering! I'm like you man! I live on the edge! They were like, "You'd better move along!" and I'm like, "I don't think so!"


I've figured out the solution to overpopulation: death penalty for parking violations.


Religion and Mythology

  • Most Christian sects believe that all sins land you in hell unless you repent. More to the point, everyone is equally guilty of sin from the moment they're born. This comes from different Biblical verses dealing with humanity generally being unworthy of Heaven and the idea that thinking a sin is seen as equal to doing it in God's eyes. Applying this trope in the opposite way, this also means all crimes are equally forgivable in the eyes of God, whether it's knowingly allowing a cashier to give you too much change or something much more serious, as long as the repentance is truly sincere.
    • Averted if one has a culturally informed understanding of ancient near east views of crime and punishment, in which case the suffering of hell is proportional to the crime, so a cashier guilty only of petty theft would face less severe punishment than a mass murderer. Similarly, the rewards in heaven are meted out the same way: those who are sincere and conscientious followers of God will enjoy a place of greater honor than those who merely pay lip service to their faith.
    • It's possible to argue that under the doctrine of original sin—the notion that "everyone is equally guilty of sin from the moment they're born"—being born is itself the sin: one is automatically damned for the crime of existing. In addition, since the only way out of the punishment is to actively ask for forgiveness, "redemption" for ones sin is more akin to Entrapment than anything else.

Tabletop Games

  • In Paranoia, all offenses against Friend Computer are of course treason. The exact level of punishment, however, depends on the "flavor" of game the GM is running, and may include a logical and rigorously fair system of fines, censure, enforced medication and brainscrubbing, or just cut straight to... Zap! Summary execution! The list of things that constitute treason, other than being a Commie Mutant Traitor, is a long one. Failure to complete your assigned mission. Unauthorized trespassing into the restricted security area where your mission objective is located. Wasting assigned paper, ink and/or grenades. Not using assigned paper, ink and/or grenades. Not proactively professing your admiration for the New Improved version of Bouncy Bubble Beverage. Failing to deliver constructive criticism of the New Improved version of Bouncy Bubble Beverage. Being issued shoes that are five sizes too small and failing to immediately turn in the responsible party. Being out of uniform, especially when submitting an official report of treason. Asking to know information above your security clearance, whether or not you know it was above your clearance before you asked. Asking whether or not asking about certain information is treason (nobody likes a smartass). Failure to maintain the required level of happiness. Displaying knowledge of the rules of Paranoia. Good thing you have six clones, though it might take you seven to complete the mission...
    • Since a player can also purchase new clone packs in case s/he run out of the original six, the whole "death" punishment does sort of lose its 'kick'. However, for GMs loving the aforementioned system of fines/censure/medication/brainscrubbing, there is a punishment worse than death: "erasure" of your clone template.
    • Oh, and reading this entry, in case you were wondering, is definitely treason.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • The city of Skullport in Forgotten Realms completely turns this trope on its head. The city is ruled by a cabal of floating skulls, who are beings of pure chaos. The only crimes in Skullport are disturbing the peace and undermining the authority of the skulls, but the skulls' punishment can be anything—from hugging a stranger to gruesome death. No one is particularly eager to gamble on this.
    • In Sigil, the central backdrop of the Planescape setting, criminal justice is enforced by the Mercykillers, who have two punishments: death for felonies and mandatory 10 years' imprisonment for everything else.
      • And for crimes above their pay grade/comprehension there's always The Lady's justice. Which leads to one of two things: Permanent exile to an extra-dimensional maze if you're lucky, or being sliced to ribbons instantly if you're not.
      • Note that Mercykillers means two things. First, they were the result of the combination of the brutal gang known as the Sodkillers, and the policemen known as the Sons of Mercy. Secondly, they kill the concept of mercy itself.
  • Warhammer 40,000: In the Imperium of Man, although not all crimes are equal, theoretically all mutations are equal, as a sign of the taint of Chaos, and are all punished by death. In practice, it's rarely this absolute, and people with mild or cosmetic mutations are likely to be treated as subhuman, but allowed to live—the guy with an extra eye or two is less likely to be killed than the guy with bugs for blood and autonomous organs. Then there's the outright hypocrisy of mutants who are used to serve the Imperium simply because their mutations are extremely useful, such as the Navigators that make Warp travel possible, or the Ogryn, whose immense strength and base, unquestioning ignorance and stupidity makes them ideal for serving in the Imperial Guard.
    • Or mutants that are taken into the service of Inquisitors. Or Imperial planets where practically everyone born there has some sort of minor mutation due to pollution, but they're allowed to live because they need people to keep working the machines that cause the pollution. Really the whole "death to all mutants" really only comes up if a mutant does something to deserve it (though obviously that "something" could be quite minor).
  • The Malleus Maleficarum from Witch Girls Adventures consider being a Witch a crime punishable by death, regardless of how they use their powers. Torment and kill mundanes for your amusement? Death! Turn the school bully into a frog because he's picking on your friend and you're a kid who doesn't know any better? Death! Local doctor who covertly uses their magic to help when regular medicine isn't enough? Death! Benevolent princess of a fantasy world come to Earth to study abroad and use your magic to help people? Death!

Video Games

  • Avernum (and its original version, Exile), a series of shareware RPGs, used it very straight. The introductory text suggests you were probably thrown through the one-way portal to the underworld for stealing a loaf of bread or speaking out (or even simply "not fitting in"), and NPCs you meet will admit to being there for anything from being on the wrong side after a regime change to having had rebels hold a meeting at their inn to, in one case, being lesbians.
    • The last one had a whole new spin put on it in Exile III when you meet a random bureaucrat NPC who has a rainbow-striped pen as a "symbol of pride". Not so unusual, except you find him working in the Empress's fortress! Obviously this suggests that the Empire has seriously relaxed this policy since the Empress succeeded her father.
  • In City of Heroes, registered superhumans are allowed (even encouraged) to pummel, burn, electrocute, irradiate, freeze, shoot with automatic weapons, and drain the souls of people with suspected criminal affiliation for such crimes as purse-snatching, minor vandalism, or simply loitering in a public area.
    • Up until the release of the City of Villains stand-alone expansion, you were always "arresting" or "subduing" your targets; this implies that you either held back the ridiculous powers just enough to knock someone out, or they get the same "saved from instant death" teleportation treatment players get. If you make (or become) a villain, you do indeed get to go "take out" people, and sometimes they'll even outright say you're to kill them.
  • The law system of Long Life Town in Chulip works like this. Every time you commit any crime, you get a "crime stamp" on your record. You aren't punished until you get three crime stamps, then you go to the Graveyard. This only applies if you commit three different crimes, though; committing the same crime multiple times won't get you more crime stamps.
  • Lampshaded in a loading screen in Fallout 3: Since the Wasteland has no system of law and punishment, if you wrong someone, prepare to pay with your life.
    • Murder? Death! Stole some food? Death! Turned on a radio that doesn't belong to you? Death!
      • And the fun continues in Fallout: New Vegas. You haven't lived till you've had all of Camp McCarran come down on you like the fist of an angry god after ganking one of their butter knives.
        • Even better since the NCR (who controls Camp McCarran) prides itself for having a system of law and punishment (hell one of the factions are escape NCR Prisoners).
  • In the adventure mode of Dwarf Fortress, every crime you commit is punished by the whole town trying to kill you! Even if you only steal a single bolt. Hell, even the kids try to end your life! The fortress mode has a proportionate (if somewhat crude) justice system in place.
  • In Liberal Crime Squad, if death penalty laws go Arch-conservative, every crime is punished by death. From terrorism (causing a meltdown at the nuclear power plant) to loitering.
  • In Hitman, get caught strangling a security guard to death with piano wire? Met with deadly force. Get caught taking the clothes of a dead or unconscious construction worker? Deadly force. Wave a handgun or knife around? Deadly force. Enter the employees only area of a restaurant? Deadly force. Walk around a hotel in your bathing suit? Deadly force. And finally, set off a metal detector with what could be car keys or a watch? Without even checking to see if you did in fact have a weapon, immediate deadly force.
  • The watchmen in Nethack's Gnomish Mines will kill you for any crime they see, including stealing from shops, picking a lock, or drinking too much from a fountain. Fortunately their definition of "crime" is very specific, and they take no notice as you kill every gnome and critter in the place.
  • Deliberately invoked in the backstory of Gothic, where the punishment for any crime was imprisonment in a mining colony, since the kingdom needed the magical ore from these colonies to make swords for their armies to use in the war against the orcs. In the end, they lost.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood: Hanging is the answer for murder, thievery, poaching, trespassing...
  • Justified in the Reincarnation series of browser games; the demon isn't looking for any one crime in particular, just evidence that his targets are still generally evil, so doing something mean-spirited and gross will get you death just as well as actual murder.
  • This is the major set up and conflict of Ultima V, with the virtues from the last game turned into laws with very nasty punishments.

Web Comics

  • In the Sluggy Freelance story arc "Phoenix Rising", Oasis sets herself up as the defender of Podunkton by killing any criminal she finds. Oddly enough, she's the hero of the story, although most of the secondary characters are at least a little uneasy about her.
  • Rather Anviliciously done in Muertitos. After a run-in with the school bully, Honeo is suspended, and when his father showed up and demanded to know exactly what Honeo did, the principal says that he struggled to defend himself and get away, thus potentially hurting his attacker, when he should have gone limp and taken the abuse. This comes with a footnote saying that the joke is that there's no joke, and this is actually how some zero-tolerance policies work. Just to be extra cynical, it also comes to light that the bully didn't get in trouble at all because his father is a major financial benefactor of the school.
  • In Order of the Stick, the Empire of Blood seems to punish all crimes by making those convicted into gladiators who are imprisoned until they're killed in the arena. If a prisoner survives for long, he's ransomed off to his family for obscene amounts of money.
  • Stated to be the case for the Alternian justice system in Homestuck. Legislascerators gather evidence of crimes committed. This evidence is presented to His Honorable Tyrrany, who dispenses justice if the accused is brought to court. The only crimes seen in-comic that have been prosecuted, however, were all pretty major ones (murder - Vriska; murder, pillaging, and property destruction - Mindfang; and embezzlement from royal funds - Lemonsnout) so it is possible that minor ones are just not brought to court, since they aren't worth His Honorable Tyrrany's time. It is stated, however, that even if the accused later turns out to have not commited the crime they were convicted of...well, admitting that they prosecuted the wrong person is embarrassing to the Alternian justice system. Much easier just to make sure that there is no evidence of innocence.
    • There is no defense lawyer.

Western Animation

  • In The Venture Brothers, Underland, led by the tyrannical Baron Underbheit, has "Underlaw". All infractions of Underlaw are punished with death. This winds up annoying Underbheit when he captures Dr. Venture and needs to hold him before killing hm. Since Underland has no prison, he's forced to lock him in the pantry.
  • In Adventure Time, the earl of Lemongrab has some... er, interesting concepts when it comes to punishing those who do wrong. Making a mess? Thirty days in the dungeon. Asking questions? Thirty-TWO days in the dungeon. Refusing to clean up mess, or asking who exactly Lemongrab is talking to? Three hours dungeon. Harmless prank? Seven years dungeon, no trials. Assuring Lemongrab that the prank was harmless? Twelve years dungeon. Elaborate, painful prank involving spicy food? ONE MILLION YEARS DUNGEON!!! (Of course, Lemongrab isn't evil- he's just young, angry, and a bit of an idiot.)
  • In one of the The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror stories, when the teachers at school begin eating students, the slightest of infractions can get a student sent to detention, which is a death sentence.
    • And in a later episode, when the school loses its teachers and takes on large numbers of grossly unqualified substitutes, Jasper makes everything the kids might do punishable by "a paddlin'".
      • This is a spoof of the Cool Hand Luke "night in the box" speech mentioned above.
  • Darkwing Duck episode "Time and Punishment" features Darkwarrior Duck, an alternate-future version of Darkwing who thought Gosalyn had died and eventually overreacted into this trope. Once he'd cleaned the streets of all obvious major criminals, he began to enforce his will on the citizenry for such "crimes" as staying out too late and having high cholesterol. Upon learning that Gosalyn isn't dead, but was instead brought to the future by a time machine, Darkwarrior dreams of using said machine to go back in time and do such things as improve the Code of Hammurabi (Ever imagine you'd hear the death penalty offered multiple times in Disney animation?) and be present when the first prehistoric life form crawled out of the sea and onto dry land so he could "get a few things straight" with it concerning how he expected it to behave. Fortunately, events in the episode make sure the Knight Templar version of him never comes to pass.
    • Though the later comic book series reveals that Darkwarrior Duck does still exist in an Alternate Universe.
  • An episode of Dexter's Laboratory has Dexter build a new Dyno-Mutt for old (and lame) Hanna-Barbera hero Blue Falcon. When activated, it starts out arresting muggers, then opening fire on a litterer, then turning a flamethrower on a jaywalker, then powering up laser-eyes and aiming at a little girl playing in a field marked with a "Keep off the Grass" sign.
  • In the Justice League episode "In Blackest Night" the Guardians of the Universe say that the Manhunters "Could not understand the subtle gradations between good and evil". Sounds like it might have been the trope.
  • Futurama has the robot-Santa, originator of the quote at the top of the page, who is programmed to decide who has been naughty and who has been nice. Trouble is, his standards are set quite too high.

Fry: This is not how Xmas is supposed to be. In my days, Xmas was about bringing people together, not blowing them apart.

  • Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender responds to the suggestion of killing the one man who is attempting to destroy the entire world with "I can't just go around wiping out people I don't like!", implying that: (A) he would be killing Ozai because he doesn't like him, not because of all the heinous crimes he has and will commit, and (B) that he would therefore have to kill anyone else he didn't like either. Even worse is when Sokka, rather than explain this to him, replies with a simple "Sure you can!".
    • Azula as Fire Lord. Played for Laughs because the punishment for five-minutes delay or any "treason" of this range is banishment and not death.
  • In the second episode of Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 (and at the end of the first one), Shake awakens from a cryogenic lab to arrive in a strange new world. Every time someone does anything immoral, they are killed instantly by a bolt of lightning. Later, Shake discovers that the cause of all this is an alien named Allen (actually Alien, but the sign maker spelled it wrong) living in a tower in the Earth's orbit, sending lightning bolts from above.
  • Downplayed in Thundercats 2011 when Lion-O attempts to shame a Powder Keg Crowd of Thunderian townspeople by announcing that a pair of stockaded Lizard scavengers, enslaved for raiding crops, "don't deserve this [harassment]," their pointman replies: "These barbarians deserve death!" And with that, an Angry Mob is born. The surprise comes when King Claudus is incredulous at Lion-O's attempt to stop them.

Real Life

  • Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio deliberately makes a stay in his jail as horrible as he can for everybody who passes through it. (Remember that this is jail rather than prison, meaning that everybody inside is awaiting trial and hasn't yet been found guilty of anything, so it's arguably a little bit early to start punishing them.) The trope applies because it doesn't matter to him whether you're in there because you've been accused of murder or because you didn't pay a parking ticket; everybody who enters is subjected to the same awful conditions.
  • This is the practice behind many "Zero Tolerance" laws in schools and workplaces. In this case, the broad and severe punishments are supposed to take the "burden" of decision-making out of the hands of teachers and administrators (particularly to protect them from getting sued). This has led to the problem of otherwise outstanding students getting suspended or expelled for possessing such "dangerous substances" as Midol or mouthwash and such "dangerous weapons" as fingernail clippers.
    • Also the ridiculousness of all parties involved in a fight being punished equally, for the crime of "being involved in a fight". Meaning if a bully walks up to another student and punches them in the head, and all the other student does is cover their head while the bully pummels them, the bully and the victim both get the exact same punishment.
  • In 1688 in England there were 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death, but that number had almost quadrupled by 1776, and it reached 220 by the end of the century. The "Bloody Code" included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Children were commonly executed for such minor crimes as stealing. There was no real rhyme or reason to any of this; it just happened that a few MPs in 18th-century England were a bit bloody-minded.
    • This period also gave us the sayings "in for a penny, in for a pound" and "one may as well get hanged for a sheep as a lamb". Since even crimes that had lesser punishments than death tended to have fairly disproportionate punishments, criminals, realizing that how much they stole was irrelevant to the sentencebegan to shoot for larger hauls. Why bother stealing a mere penny or lamb, when one could steal a sheep or a pound and the punishment is no worse if caught?
    • In practice, this may have led to more crime as well as worse crime: many judges and juries modified the charge, ignored evidence, or outright acquitted certain offenders so as to avoid having to carry out executions for some of the more ridiculous sentences.
  • "Three Strikes Laws" are statutes enacted by state governments in the United States which require the state courts to impose a life sentence to persons who have been convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses. Some defendants have been given sentences of 25 years to life in prison for such crimes as shoplifting golf clubs (Gary Ewing, previous strikes for burglary and robbery with a knife), or, along with a violent assault, a slice of pepperoni pizza from a group of children (Jerry Dewayne Williams, previous convictions for robbery and attempted robbery, sentence later reduced to six years). In Rummel v. Estelle (1980), the Supreme Court upheld life with possible parole for a third-strike fraud felony in Texas, which arose from a refusal to repay $120.75 paid for air conditioning repair that was subsequently considered unsatisfactory.
  • The Athenian Constitution of Draco, making this trope Older Than Feudalism. Much like the Bloody Code, while not all crimes had the same punishment, his constitution did set death as the punishment for numerous minor offenses. Unlike the Bloody Code, however, he justified his...erm...liberality with the death penalty by saying that it was the only fitting punishment he could think of for certain minor crimes, and as for worse offenses, there really isn't any worse punishment than death, is there? (Bear in mind that the Greeks weren't particularly fond of torture at this point.) From this, we get the term "Draconian" to describe harsh laws; the fact that his name means "dragon" is merely a poetic coincidence.
  • We also have the Chinese Legalists, whose founders Han Feizi and Shang Yang had a similar logic to Draco...but also seemed to enjoy prescribing nasty forms of execution for the most severe crimes, including the infamous "slow slicing" (better known as "death by a thousand cuts") and execution of whole families (as punishment for treason). They also added that severe punishments were wise because, while it was necessary that everyone from the Emperor on down followed the law (a surprisingly modern idea for the 4th century BCE), enforcement is necessarily spotty, and severe punishments serve as a deterrent. These laws were applied under the Qin Dynasty, advised by the prominent Legalist Li Si, but the Legalists, as it turned out, missed an important point...when all punishments are the same, people who know they're guilty of a minor crime and soon to be caught will pursue worse crimes, since they'll die (or whatever) no matter what they're charged with (again, "in for a penny, in for a pound"). The collapse of the Qin Dynasty is generally attributed to conscripts and work gangs who realized they'd be late to report and, when realizing that the punishment for being late to report (death) was the same as the punishment for rebellion (death), decided that rebelling and putting up a fight was better than being executed.