Ex-offenders in Philadelphia are knocking on doors and reminding voters to come out for Tuesday’s primary election as part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s new Campaign for Smart Justice, which seeks to reduce incarceration rates and curb racial bias in the justice system,reports Philly.com. The voter-education effort aims to advance those goals by recasting the conversation about the role of prosecutors. The ACLU intends to replicate it in nine more district-attorney races around the nation over the next three years. To drive home the message, it has hired more than 50 formerly incarcerated people, almost all of them brand-new to activism, to reach 11,000 ACLU members in Philadelphia.
Each day, the canvassers gather and Nick Pressley, the campaign manager, gives out assignments, tablets, and instructions: a script to use at the door, a reminder to input data accurately, and a warning against what he calls “ninja knocking”– darting away before the resident has a chance to make his or her way to the door. Above all they can’t advocate for any one candidate. “Because our status is [a nonprofit], we can’t be seen as trying to influence the election,” he said. “We can only go out and educate our neighbors.” Pressley, who has a felony record, said that on other campaigns, he was not allowed to hire people with records. The idea of hiring ex-offenders came from Bill Cobb, who joined the ACLU this year after running a reentry organization called Redeemed. A half-dozen reentry organizations, including the Pennsylvania Prison Society, referred canvassers for the job. “One of our primary goals is to get the entire candidate field to move left and be more aggressive in fighting mass incarceration,” he said.