- Co-founder of the Prison Moratorium Project
- Former Youth Section organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America
- Former research director for the union federation Change to Win
Kevin Pranis is a criminal-justice policy analyst and anti-prison activist who holds a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies and a master’s degree in Social Sciences, both from the University of Chicago. After completing his schooling in 1994, Pranis served as the project director of Amigos de las Americas, an organization that uses “immersion in cross-cultural experiences” to “buil[d] young leaders” who aspire to become “life-long catalyst[s] for social change.”
Pranis next took a job as a case worker for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, through which civil and criminal attorneys, social workers, paralegals, investigators, and interns are assigned to represent inner-city New Yorkers—mostly nonwhites—who are caught up in the criminal-justice system.
In 1996 Pranis co-founded the New York-based Prison Moratorium Project (PMP) for the express purpose of promoting a freeze on the construction of prisons—particularly private-sector, for-profit prisons—and higher expenditures on public education, social welfare programs, and tuition assistance/scholarships for low-income college students. “New York State is diverting millions of dollars from colleges and universities to pay for prisons we can’t afford,” he said in 2000. Throughout his tenure as PMP’s board chairman from 1996-2002, Pranis set the ideological tone for the organization's persistent condemnation of the American “prison-industrial complex” and its allegedly racist “devastation of entire communities”—of which one hallmark was the “overrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos within the system.”
In the 1990s Pranis was an organizer with the Young Democratic Socialists, the Youth Section of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He remains a DSA member to this day.
In 1999 Pranis received funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) to “develop and implement a model program to train 30-40 high school, college, and graduate students as advocates for criminal justice reform.” From 2000-03, Pranis was one of OSI's Soros Justice Fellows, who, according to Ann Beeson, the Institute's then-director of U.S. programs, were “developing innovative solutions to expose the deep flaws in the current system” that “too often perpetuates inequality.”
In 2003 Pranis and criminal-justice policy analyst Judith Greene co-founded Justice Strategies (JS), a Tides Center project designed to “alter the laws, policies and practices that drive mass incarceration and racial disparity in the U.S. criminal justice and immigration systems.” Specifically, JS “tracks the growth in the number of immigrants behinds bars”; “documents the impact of changing law enforcement and sentencing practices on immigrant communities”; “examines the impact of [prison] privatization at the state and national level”; “documents the industry's role in promoting rapid prison population growth”; analyzes “the impact of current [law-enforcement] policies on communities of color”; and “advocates to craft reforms designed to safely lower levels of racial disparity in imprisonment.” Pranis served for at least six years as a policy analyst with JS.
In an April 2003 report, Pranis wrote that during the preceding 24 years in Arizona, “higher education’s share of the [state] budget fell from 19.1% to 12.4% while corrections’ share rose from 4.3% to 10.7%.” “The state now spends significantly more General Fund dollars to put African Americans and Latinos behind bars than to put them through state universities,” he complained, exhortng Arizona to “inves[t] in alternatives to incarceration.”
In April 2004 Pranis participated in a series of events where cafeteria workers at SUNY Binghamton voiced their desire to join the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, which soon thereafter merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) to form UNITE HERE!.
In 2005 Pranis wrote Cost-Saving or Cost-Shifting: The Fiscal Impact of Prison Privatization in Arizona, a 17-page report condemning proposals to expand Arizona's private prison system. The report was published collaboratively by the Private Corrections Institute, the American Friends Service Committee of Tucson, and the Arizona Leadership Institute.
In 2007 Pranis worked for the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “reducing the use of incarceration” to the point where it becomes “only … a last resort” in dealing with lawbreakers.
From 2007-09 Pranis was a research director for the union federation Change to Win.