Clatsop County has among the highest rates of juvenile justice referrals in Oregon, a mark of misbehavior that experts link to problems with education and drug and alcohol abuse.
Juvenile referrals involve crime and lesser offenses like alcohol and marijuana possession. Last year, Clatsop ranked 34th out of 36 counties in a report prepared by Children First for Oregon using Oregon Youth Authority data. The trend line shows the county’s referral rate was significantly higher than the state average in each of the past five years.
Children First for Oregon, an advocacy group, issues county data books that track several indicators, from health and child welfare to financial stability and education.
“When I look at the report, and look at all of the different data, I would say it’s unfortunate that we’re in a high referral rate county, but I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that we are,” said Greg Engbretson, the director of the Clatsop County Juvenile Department.
The county’s juvenile referral rate in 2016 — 25.8 per 1,000 young people up to age 17 — was considerably higher than the statewide rate of 13.6.
For Engbretson, the report outlined obvious patterns that distinguish Clatsop from counties with lower juvenile referral rates.
Clatsop was ranked 34th last year in third-grade math proficiency, 27th in eighth-grade math proficiency, 25th in both third and eighth-grade English language arts proficiency, 25th in graduation, 24th in teen pregnancy and 29th in homeless students.
“These are not ‘excuses’ for the county’s high rate of juvenile referrals but provide some background information regarding why they may be what they are,” Engbretson said in an email.
Clatsop has long had a hard-drinking culture that can influence underage drinking. The Oregon Student Wellness Survey has found that county teenagers have higher rates of alcohol use than the state average.
Over the past few years, after marijuana was legalized for recreational use in July 2015, the county has also seen a spike in marijuana-related offenses among young people.
“This has been pretty clear to us, that ever since some of the marijuana legislation has changed — the laws in Oregon — that we have definitely seen an increase of juvenile referrals for marijuana,” Engbretson said.
District Attorney Josh Marquis said the county’s juvenile referral rate should not be viewed in isolation or as a sign of disproportionate juvenile punishment.
“It may be that the adults are paying more attention to kids in Clatsop County than in some more urban parts of the state,” Marquis said in an email. “I’m not sure that’s it, but factors like that can affect the rate.”
Across Oregon, juvenile referral rates have declined, part of a public-policy choice by the juvenile justice system over the past two decades to steer young people away from detention.
Some in law enforcement have complained the approach has papered over troubling levels of juvenile property crime and drug abuse and encouraged counties to dismiss referrals without sanctions or supervision.
Marquis said advocates like Children First for Oregon have clearly put a “negative value” on juvenile referrals. The county data books are financed by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has sought to reduce juvenile detention nationally in favor of more family-focused intervention.
Juvenile referrals are made by law enforcement after arrests. Juvenile departments decide after intake — and often after consultation with prosecutors — whether to review and close a case, take some type of informal action, or formally petition the court.
In Clatsop County last year, 72 percent of juvenile referrals were handled informally, a figure that matches the statewide share. About a third of referrals involved accountability agreements that could trigger future consequences if violated, while the others were reviewed and closed.
Of the referrals that were petitioned to court, most of the juveniles who were found delinquent received probation or formal sanction, and only a handful faced placement in a youth correctional facility or residential treatment program.
Tonia Hunt, the executive director of Children First for Oregon, said the juvenile referral rate category in the report “reflects the community’s involvement with youth and youth engagement with law enforcement.
“Higher referral numbers don’t necessarily mean that communities have more criminality,” she said in an email. “It could mean that there is more interaction with law enforcement. This data provides a baseline to examine patterns and what might be driving changes or variations in each county.”