It’s mid-afternoon and Verona Platt has been checking her emails since 6am, awaiting a message from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) about her application to study a Bachelor of Justice.
Verona grew up with her three younger siblings in Coen, a community with a population of around 360 people, located on the eastern side of the Cape York Peninsula. As a child, she witnessed the challenges of everyday living in a remote Indigenous community and the struggles of Indigenous peoples within the criminal justice system.
“The things that happen in the community with all the racism in the justice system and how the police act towards Indigenous people – I find it unfair," says Verona. "Sometimes in the courtrooms at home, there are misunderstandings. So my plan is to start studying law. And to finish. After that, I want to help out back in Coen when I can.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in June 2022 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders accounted for 32% of all Australian prisoners, whilst making up only 3.2% of the population. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the latest 2020-2021 data shows that young Indigenous people aged 10-17 represent 49% of all young people in detention, whilst making up 5.8% of all young people in Australia.
These statistics demonstrate a significant and enduring disparity in the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian justice system and raise serious concerns about the system’s effectiveness. It highlights the need for systemic change, one that Verona wants to be a part of.
As she witnessed these challenges within the community, she took solace in the worlds of literacy and art.
“I really love art and reading. With reading, I liked that I could get away from the present and be in my own little world. With art, it’s more about expressing my feelings. If I couldn’t explain it to someone, I just did paintings and drawings, and explained it through that.”
If the challenges she witnessed in Coen were fuel to the fire, then her network of inspiring people around her was the kindling, providing motivation, support and inspiration.
“I look up to a lot of people - my aunties and my parents. One of my aunties recently went back to uni, and I think that’s really good of her, because she wants to be able to do education, and she did that. My aunties find what they’re passionate about, and they pursue it. I want to be able to do that for myself. And my parents are both determined."
After attending primary school in Coen, she moved away from home to complete her high schooling years, including Year 11 and 12 at Cape York Girl Academy. It was here that she faced what came to be one of her biggest challenges yet.
“Being away from home for boarding school, leaving and trying to figure out how to do things by myself was really challenging. But I still had the support of my parents. When I was growing up, mum and I did things together to get me ready for living by myself. She made sure I did chores that would help me for when I wanted to live by myself.”
In Year 11 Verona decided to pursue a Bachelor of Justice and take positive action towards addressing First Nations overrepresentation in the Australian justice system. Working with Cape York Leaders Program and her surrounding support network, she unpacked the steps towards her goal. In the interim between graduating from school and beginning university, Verona took part in Cape York Employment's School to Job Program. She was placed with Cape York Leaders Program (CYLP) team in Cairns, and gained experience working in an office environment.
“Cape York Leaders Program have helped me a lot. They helped introduce me to unis, because I wasn’t sure what uni I wanted to go to, and what type of law I wanted to study. They helped me figure all of that out. When we did the Next Steps Conference, it helped me emotionally prepare for going out there into tertiary studies and adulthood, and what to expect after leaving school and living by myself.
*clicks refresh * - new email from QUT
At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon Verona and CYLP staff member, Shanan can be heard cheering around the computer, celebrating the successful acceptance of Verona to study a Bachelor of Justice with QUT.
“I’m excited but I’m nervous. I’ll come back home eventually, once I get myself sorted. I’ll stay down there until I make it big. So that I can actually help people back home, instead of just being there,” Verona says.
Closing her emails for the day, she walks out of the office with a smile on her face.