Charles Watts, sentenced under obsolete version of “stacking” law, wins motion in federal court
January 4, 2023, New York – Today, a 52-year-old Black man sentenced to 92 years in prison for robberies in the early 1990s won his motion in federal court for compassionate release. A first-time offender whose crimes caused no physical harm, Charles Watts received a “stacked” sentence under a law that Congress has since amended. If he were convicted today of the same crimes, Mr. Watts would be sentenced to roughly 47 years. He has spent 30 years in prison.
Mr. Watts has three children who are now adults, six grandchildren, and a sister, with whom he plans to live when released.
“I am happy to finally return home to my family and be a father to my children. I want to be a mentor and use my case as an example for young people so that they don't make the same mistakes I did,” said Mr. Watts
Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights filed the motion on Mr. Watts’s behalf 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.
Mr. Watts was 20 years old in 1990 when he and a childhood friend committed a series of robberies 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 not retroactively, so Mr. Watts remained incarcerated, scheduled for release when he would have been 115 years old. His 92-year sentence was disproportionately long, especially by today’s standards: in fiscal year 2019, the average sentence for robbery in the country was nine years and one month.
“Congress enacted the First Step Act to give people like Mr. Watts a second chance and to remedy the cruelty of the 1990s tough on crime regime that disproportionately impacted young Black men,” said Samah Sisay, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We are thankful that the court has granted Mr. Watts his freedom to reunite with his family and reintegrate into society.”
In issuing the decision today, Judge Kiyo Matsumoto joins others around the country who have recognized that stacking can be an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to grant compassionate release. The decision also casts light on Section 924(c), a law that has often been the subject of Supreme Court litigation. Prosecutors have discretion as to when they use Section 924(c), and they have not done so equitably. In 2016, over half of those convicted under Section 924(c) were Black, and almost a third were Latinx. Meanwhile, Black people convicted under 924(c) received an average prison sentence of 165 months, compared to 140 months for white people.
Having entered prison as a young man, Mr. Watts leaves as a middle-aged man who managed to endure violence and other dangers over three decades to become a respected mentor to young men both inside and outside prison. For his growth, he credits the positive influence of other imprisoned men and a commitment to his Christian faith, which his sister encouraged years ago.
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.