We’ve come a long way from chopped-off hands and the stockades, but the fate of burglars still varies widely depending where you are, even within the US. While some states let thieves off with a slap on the wrist, others lock them up for life. We dug into the states that are hardest on burglars, and explored what effect their hard-line tactics have on crime rates. The results may surprise you.
Residential burglary has the same basic definition everywhere: illegally entering a private dwelling with the intent of committing a crime. But once a burglar has been found guilty, any number of things might happen to him. Federal, state, and local laws all frame things slightly differently—for one nation, the United States sure does have a lot of different rules—and sentences, fines, and even classifications can change entirely the minute you cross the border. To borrow a phrase, one state’s felony is another state’s misdemeanor: what gets you locked up for life in South Carolina can mean a mere decade behind bars in North Carolina. Meanwhile, burglary rates are also very different depending on where you are.
Which got us to thinking — which states are the least forgiving of burglars? And when it comes to burglary rates, does harshness make a difference? To find out, we first searched through the legislative codes of all fifty states (plus DC) to find maximum and minimum burglary sentences, as well as maximum fines. We dug into hard data from actual prison populations to figure out how long the average burglar actually spends in jail. Finally, we looked into “stand-your-ground” and “castle doctrine” laws, which mandate the lengths to which homeowners can legally go to protect their property, under the logic that getting shot at is, effectively, another consequence of burglary in some places.
When we put all this information together, we found wild extremes—the minimum sentences ranged from zero (in many states) to seven years (in Oklahoma). Maximums could be as low as three years (in New Mexico and Kansas) and as high as life imprisonment (in South Carolina and Virginia), while fines could be anywhere from five hundred dollars to a hundred thousand dollars — two hundred times as much! In order to compare states, we developed a ranking system that weighed each data point according to where it fell within its range. We added up these weights to get a total for each state, sorted the totals, and came up with this list: the 13 states where you really, really don’t want to be convicted of burglary. This information also gave us a new perspective on the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which ranks states according to burglary rate. Does being hard on burglars make them give up a life of crime—or does it just make them try harder?