Washington, D.C. – The Arc of the United States has recognized Steven Drizin, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, with The Perske Award for championing the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in the criminal justice system.
Drizin was presented the award for a lifetime of work on justice reform for youth and people with disabilities and his representation of Brendan Dassey, a young man with learning and developmental disabilities, and a central figure in Netflix’s smash docuseries Making a Murderer. The award was presented to Drizin during an event celebrating the creation of The Arc’s Criminal Justice Advisory Panel, the latest addition to the organization’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability’s® (NCCJD®) ongoing work to protect the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities involved in the criminal justice system.
Drizin’s law career spans more than 30 years, during which he has become a national expert on false confessions, wrongful convictions, and juvenile justice reform. Drizin and his colleague, Laura Nirider, have been working on the Brendan Dassey case since Dassey was sentenced to life in prison after conviction for first-degree intentional homicide, rape, and mutilation of a corpse at the age of 16. His conviction was overturned on grounds that his confession was involuntary but later reinstated after an en banc decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether to hear his case.
“Our justice system is flawed in many ways, but nothing is more cruel, inhumane, and tragic than the way people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be treated in the process. Steve Drizin has made it his mission to take on many cases in which justice hasn’t been served. In Brendan Dassey’s case, the work he is doing will have a ripple effect for other people with intellectual and developmental disabilities caught up in a system that can stack the odds against them. For those of us who knew and worked with Bob Perske, giving Steve this award in Bob’s name is a natural fit, as Bob’s passion lives on in those who continue to work toward justice,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.
The Perske Award was established by The Arc in 2018 to further the legacy of Bob Perske by recognizing individuals who champion the rights of people with I/DD in the criminal justice system. As a former Executive Director of a chapter of The Arc, Perske’s legacy was in volunteering his time to assist defendants with I/DD who were unjustly accused and their defense attorneys. Perske famously fought for more than 25 years to win the freedom of Richard LaPointe, a man with Dandy Walker Syndrome, who was incarcerated for more than 26 years after falsely confessing to a murder he could not have committed. He also played a critical role in winning the posthumous pardon in 2011 of Joe Arridy, a 23-year-old man with an intellectual disability, executed in 1939 after falsely confessing to a rape and murder he did not commit.
“For more than a decade, Bob was a partner in a shared passion to shed light on the systemic problem of false and coerced confessions. Bob taught me that far too often, it’s people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are placed in peril during interrogations and in court proceedings simply because actors in our criminal justice system ignore or don’t recognize their disabilities. Bob’s work, often accompanied by beautiful illustrations from his wife Martha, humanized those with disabilities and spotlighted the many ways in which they were abused. My respect and admiration for Bob and his work is boundless and difficult to put into words – receiving this award in his name is the greatest honor I could receive, and I thank The Arc for the work it does to fight for change in our criminal justice system for people with disabilities,” said Drizin.
Upon Perske’s passing in 2016, The Arc created The Robert Perske Fund for Criminal Justice to support carrying on his legacy through the work of The Arc and our National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD).
About The Arc
The Arc advocates for and serves people with I/DD, including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, and cerebral palsy. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.
About The Arc’s Criminal Justice Advisory Panel
The Advisory Panel is the latest addition to NCCJD’s ongoing work to protect the rights of people with I/DD involved in the criminal justice system. It brings together legal professionals who share The Arc’s mission to protect and promote the civil rights of people with I/DD and will help expand NCCJD’s crucial advocacy. The Advisory Panel is led by Cliff Sloan, partner at Skadden Arps, whose pro bono litigation experience includes securing a victory for a death row inmate with intellectual disability before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Elizabeth Kelley, a solo practitioner specializing in defending individuals with I/DD and mental health disabilities, and The Arc’s CEO, Peter Berns.