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Can this group of former offenders swing the Philly DA race?

“I’ve been through a lot of these issues: Civil-asset forfeiture, racial profiling, cash bail. Now, I’m trying to help change the system.”

Robert Goode, a canvasser for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, doing voter education and get-out-the-vote work ahead of the Philadelphia District Attorney primary.
Robert Goode, a canvasser for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, doing voter education and get-out-the-vote work ahead of the Philadelphia District Attorney primary.Read moreSamantha Melamed

For Robert Goode, the Philadelphia district attorney campaign feels personal.

After all, the 39-year-old Mount Airy man has acquired an intimate knowledge of how prosecutors can shape citizens' lives — starting with his first arrest on drug charges at age 28, and continuing up until this March, with a case that lingered for seven months before it was dismissed.

So, last Thursday, he walked the streets of Center City, knocking on doors and reminding voters to come out for the Tuesday primary, as part of the ACLU's new Campaign for Smart Justice, which seeks to reduce incarceration rates and curb racial bias in the justice system.

The voter-education effort — a first for the nearly century-old organization — 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 across the city.

To Goode, that makes perfect sense.

"I've been through a lot of the issues the Smart Justice campaign is highlighting: civil-asset forfeiture, racial profiling, cash bail," he said. "Now, I'm trying to help change the system. You can't complain about it if you're not going to help change it."

The work began in April and continues through Tuesday's primary. Each day, the canvassers gather at Pipeline Philly 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 (as the GPS on their tablet doesn't lie), 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, he told them last week, 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.

Yet, he said, "this canvass has been the most efficient and least troublesome canvass I've ever run. I'm really surprised. Normally, you're looking at about a 50 percent turnover, and a month in, I've only had to suspend less than 10 people."

Canvassers include men like Michael Twiggs, 58, who was paroled home to Southwest Philadelphia in February after 41 years in prison. Twiggs was a juvenile lifer — sentenced for a murder committed when he was 17 — but was resentenced last December after the Supreme Court determined that sentences like his were unconstitutional.

Twiggs, on parole for life, hopes the next district attorney will rethink how juvenile-lifer resentencings are handled.

Also on the job is Jermaine Myers, 35, who was released in October after cycling in and out of prison for close to two decades on a string of gun and drug charges.

"I'm excited to be part of something I believe in," said Myers, who lives in North Philadelphia. "The effects of incarceration, racial profiling — it's basically getting people to realize what they're voting for. This is new to me. I never would have thought about voting for DA, but I see the importance now."

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. "We feel that this campaign, along with other efforts in the city, have done that."

People like Goode are glad to have the work, especially at $15 per hour.

"Once you get a record, the working world looks at you differently," he said. "I have been turned down for so many $7.25-per-hour jobs."

He's hoping this will lead to something more.

"I want to further my career in activism. I think this is my calling," he said.

Still, the work can be slow and frustrating.

Last Thursday, he set out with a list of 56 ACLU members. Some appeared to be outdated addresses. Many were not home. And even when people did come to the door, he rarely ran through his full script. Most people, he's found, don't have the patience for that.

"People are so disenfranchised and especially with our last district attorney and what happened to him," Goode said. "Last week, I was in South Philly, and a woman said, 'Get away! I'm never voting again.'"

But Katherine Longo, 23, who answered her door in Center City, said she appreciated his work.

"I think it's been really helpful, them reminding people to get out. A lot of times, people show up for national elections. But when an organization tells you, 'This is important; this is part of our plan,' it helps drive home that this is part of a bigger issue."

Goode said he has also inspired many of his friends, some of whom intend to vote for the first time.

"They didn't vote for the president or anything," she said, "but they're voting for the district attorney race."