Convicted under an application of a “stacking” law that has since been amended, the first-time offender would get a 25-year sentence today
November 9, 2021, New York – Today, a 51-year-old Black man who received what amounts to a life sentence for robberies in the early 1990s filed a motion for compassionate release in federal court. A first-time offender whose crimes caused no physical harm, he is taking this action under the First Step Act, the 2018 criminal justice reform law that gives the sentencing court authority to reduce a sentence when there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to do so.
Charles Watts received a “stacked” 92-year sentence due to a version of a law that Congress has since amended. If he were convicted today of the same crimes, Mr. Watts would be sentenced to roughly 25 years. He has already spent nearly 30 years in prison.
“I am no longer the confused naive kid I was back in 1992, I am now a strong minded
grown man that chose to take a different path, the good path. I made a grave mistake early on in my life by hanging out and messing with the wrong group of people and letting peer-pressure guide me in the wrong direction which cost me 30-years in prison away from my family and loved ones."
Mr. Watts was 20 years old in 1990 when he and a childhood friend committed a series of robberies in Brooklyn using unloaded guns. It was his possession of a gun that led to increased penalties under Section 924(c) of the criminal code. For each of five counts, he received a mandatory minimum sentence: one 5-year term and four 20-year terms, on top of 87 months for the underlying crimes. Section 924(c) contains a “stacking rule” that requires the convicted person to serve the terms consecutively.
A provision in the First Step Act exempts first-time offenders from the “stacking rule,” but this reform is not retroactive, so Mr. Watts remains in federal prison in Pennsylvania, not scheduled for release until he is 115 years old. His 92-year sentence is disproportionately long, especially by today’s standards. Statistics compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission show that for fiscal year 2019, the average sentence for robbery in the country is 109 months (9 years plus 1 month); for murder, 255 months (21 years, 4 months); for child pornography, 103 months (8 years, 7 month); and for “extortion/racketeering,” 32 months (2 years, 8 months).
“It is unimaginable that keeping Mr. Watts in prison is serving any semblance of justice,” said Elsa Mota, an attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “He has already served more time in prison than he would be sentenced to today for the same actions. We hope the court will look at the totality of his life, not just one moment in time, and grant him compassionate release.”
Prosecutors have discretion as to when they use Section 924(c), and they have not done so equitably. In 2016, 52.6 percent of people convicted under Section 924(c) were Black and 29.5 percent were Latinx. Meanwhile, Black people convicted under 924(c) received an average prison sentence of 165 months, compared to 140 months for white people.
Enacted as part of the Gun Control Bill of 1968, Section 924(c) has often been the subject of Supreme Court litigation, and Congress has amended the law several times to make it harsher. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, for example, eliminated the possibility of parole; until then, people were eligible for parole after serving one third of their sentence or ten years.
Aside from the remote possibility of commutation, “compassionate release” is Mr. Watts’s only hope of getting out of prison. With the First Step Act, Congress explicitly sought to foster sentence reductions in two ways: by encouraging people in prison to petition courts directly and, relatedly, by giving courts greater discretion to determine what constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for release. In essence, the law empowers the judiciary to take on the role once solely played by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Courts across the country have recognized that stacking can be an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to grant compassionate release. In United States v. Mccoy (2020), for example, a group of people serving stacked sentences for robbery successfully petitioned for compassionate release. They based their argument primarily on the length of their sentences. In rejecting a challenge from the government, the appeals court noted the “gross disparity” between these sentences and those Congress deemed appropriate via the First Step Act.
Mr. Watts’s motion says his health is another “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce his sentence. He has sarcoidosis, a rare condition that usually affects the lungs. According to the Center for Disease Control, people with sarcoidosis are at high risk of suffering life-threatening consequences should they contract COVID-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, dozens of courts have provided relief to people in prison who face such risks.
“We must as a society and as a legal system remember those who were condemned to essentially die behind bars under an overly punitive regime,” said Samah Sisay, another attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. As Congress has taken small steps to right those wrongs we cannot leave those most affected behind.”
Citing the First Step Act, Mr. Watts’s attorneys say his sentence is a holdover from an era that has passed. The “tough-on-crime” mentality of the 1990s has become notably less pronounced as public support for judicial discretion, case-specific sentencing, and rehabilitation has grown.
Over his nearly three decades in prison, Mr. Watts has exhibited exemplary behavior. Having developed a deep commitment to his Christian faith, he takes the time to mentor young men both in prison and outside. He has three children and five grandchildren and would treasure the opportunity to build closer relationships with them. If he is released, he would live with and help take care of his older sister, who has a disability.
“I am a different person today than I was when I was first incarcerated. I fully recognize the harm I caused others and now appreciate the value of my life and want a chance to have a life out of prison where I can reunite with my loved ones.”
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.