Study completed by The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology

Download the full study here.

December 2012


This study closely examined the decision-making processes of 422 randomly-selected, incarcerated male and female burglars across three states (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio). The central research questions that guided the project included the following:

What motivates burglars to engage in burglary?

What factors are considered by burglars during target selection?

What deters burglars from burglarizing specific targets?

What techniques do burglars use when engaging in burglary?

Are their gender differences in burglary motivations, target selection and techniques?

In addition, this study was designed to specifically assess the deterrent effect, if any, of burglar alarms on offender’s decisions to burglarize. The following are some of the central findings:

1. What motivates burglars to engage in burglary?

  • First, it is clear that many in our sample of burglars were seasoned offenders. The overall sample of respondents reported being arrested from 1 to over 100 times in the past (mean = 12.9 arrests). Age of first burglary arrest ranged from 9 to 50 (mean age = 23.6) while the reported age when first engaging in a burglary ranged from 6 to 50 (mean age = 21.8).
  • It is also evident that some burglars were involved in other forms of serious crime over the course of their offending careers. About 8% reported that they had been charged with homicide, 12% with robbery, and 7% with assault at some point in their past. On the other hand, over 54% reported that burglary/breaking-and-entering was the most serious crime that they had been charged with to date.
  • Past literature suggests there are multiple motivations for engaging in burglary including drugs, money, foolishness, and thrill-seeking. Within this sample it was quite apparent that drug and alcohol use were, at minimum, correlated to involvement in burglary and, in many cases, the direct cause, and a primary motivator, for males and females alike.
  • Within the entire sample, 88% of respondents indicated that their top reason for committing burglaries was related to their need to acquire drugs (51%) or money (37%), although many reported needing the money to support drug problems. Crack or powder cocaine and heroin were the drugs most often reportedly used by these offenders and these substances were often being used in combination with other substances, including marijuana and alcohol, during burglary attempts.
  • When asked how income accumulated from burglaries would be spent, drug use was the most frequently reported answer (64%) followed by living expenses (49%), partying (35%), clothes/shoes (31%), gifts (17%), and gambling (5%).

2. What factors are considered by burglars during target selection?

  • About half of the burglars reported engaging in at least one residential burglary and about a third reported engaging in at least one commercial burglary during the year before their most recent arrest.
  • Most of the burglars relied on the use of a vehicle; more often it was their own, but sometimes the vehicle belonged to a family member or a friend. About one in eight reported using a stolen vehicle during the course of a burglary.
  • There was substantial and wide variation in the distance driven prior to engaging in a burglary, with some traveling hundreds of miles or across state lines (presumably in an effort to minimize identification and capture) and others reporting walking or driving just a couple blocks away (range .5 miles to 250 miles).
  • Just under a third of the offenders reported that they collected information about a potential target prior to initiating a burglary attempt, suggesting that most burglars are impulsive to some degree.
  • About 12% indicated that they typically planned the burglary, 41% suggested it was most often a “spur of the moment” event/offense, and the other 37% reported that it varied.
  • When considering the amount of time dedicated to planning, when planning did occur, nearly half (49%) suggested that the burglary occurred within one day and 16% indicated that the planning process took place for 1-3 days. There were not significant differences in substance use involvement between those who were more deliberate planners and those who were not.
  • Just over a fourth of burglars typically worked alone and approximately the same proportion reported never burglarizing alone. Among those who worked with others, most committed burglaries with friends and/or spouses/significant others, although nearly one in eight reported working with other family members.

3. What deters burglars from burglarizing specific targets?

  • Close proximity of other people (including traffic, those walking nearby, neighbors, people inside the establishment, and police officers), lack of escape routes, and indicators of increased security (alarm signs, alarms, dogs inside, and outdoor cameras or other surveillance equipment) was considered by most burglars when selecting a target.
  • Within a broad set of potential target hardening deterrents, alarms and outdoor cameras and other surveillance equipment were considered by a majority of burglars.
  • About 60% of the burglars indicated that the presence of an alarm would cause them to seek an alternative target altogether. This was particularly true among the subset of burglars that were more likely to spend time deliberately and carefully planning a burglary.
  • Most burglars would try to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary. Among those that determined that an alarm was present after initiating a burglary, about half would discontinue the attempt.

4. What techniques do burglars use when engaging in burglary?

  • Most burglars reported entering open windows or doors or forcing windows or doors open. Only about one in eight burglars reported picking locks or using a key that they had previously acquired to gain entry.
  • About one in five burglars reported cutting telephone or alarm wires in advance.
  • Screwdrivers were the most commonly reported tool that burglars carried, followed by crow bars and hammers.
  • Most burglars (79%) reported an interest in acquiring cash during their burglaries, followed by jewelry (68%), illegal drugs (58%), electronics (56%) and prescription drugs (44%).
  • About 65% of those who stole items worked to dispose of those items immediately. For those that held onto items, most were usually stored at a friend's house or, less often, stashed somewhere else including a storage unit or an empty building or vacant house.
  • In terms of item disposition, most burglars reported selling the items to strangers, pawn shops or second-hand dealers, or friends or trading the items for something else. Smaller numbers of burglars reported selling items online, to family members, or at auctions, and still others reported trading the items directly for drugs.

5. Are their gender differences in burglary motivations, target selection and techniques?

  • There were some broad similarities between male and female burglars in this study and some substantial differences as well. In terms of past criminal involvement, males and females were fairly equivalent.
  • Male burglars often planned their burglaries more deliberately and carefully and were more likely to visit a potential target ahead of time to gather intelligence. Female burglars appeared to be more impulsive overall, perhaps as a result of being more involved in, and possibly motivated by, substance use problems.
  • Drug use was the most frequently reported reason given by females (70%) for their engagement in burglary; for males their top reason was money.
  • Females clearly preferred to burglarize homes and residences in the afternoon timeframe, while males preferred to focus on businesses in the late evenings.
  • Significantly fewer female burglars were likely to spend time planning, more females were likely to report engaging in burglaries on the “spur of the moment”, and more females were likely to complete a burglary that day if they did spend any time planning.
  • Male burglars reported being deterred from targeting a particular location by a lack of potential hiding locations, steel bars on windows or doors, proximity of the target to other houses or businesses, availability of escape routes, and distance to the nearest road (which is consistent with their interest in nighttime offending).
  • A larger proportion of females than males indicated that alarms, outdoor cameras, outdoor lighting, and indications of neighborhood watch programs were effective deterrents.
  • The impact of alarms and surveillance equipment on target selection did not vary across gender, although male burglars were less often dissuaded from attempting a burglary if they noticed signs suggesting that a particular location was protected by alarms. Further, male burglars who tended to plan more carefully were also more willing to attempt to disable an alarm that was found at a target location.
  • Significantly more females reported engaging in burglaries with spouses/significant while significantly males reported doing so with friends.
  • More males reported being likely to steal illegal drugs, cash and jewelry during burglaries while more females were most likely to seek out prescription medications.

Download the full study here.