Plea agreements do not guarantee results
Sentencings in most cases are like a thick fog. You never know what's ahead of you until you're there. That's because plea agreements are mere recommendations to the court in exchange for a guilty plea. This is the bargain part of plea bargain. The Judge is typically free to reject the agreement of the parties—but this almost never allows the Defendant to back out of a guilty plea even if the plea is rejected. Why? Well, when a Defendant pleads guilty to an offense this typically ends the merits phase of the prosecution. This is separate from the sentencing.
There are reasons for this. The court system typically doesn’t want people pleading guilty because they think they will get a certain outcome. The judge will insist, for good reason, that the Defendant plead guilty only if he or she is truly guilty and not because there is a potential benefit.
Also, it’s probably not intentional but there is some suspense and fear built into the process. You just don’t know what sentence the judge will dole out unless and until the moment of truth happens. The Defendant has an absolute right to a 15-day delay in sentencing between the time of plea taking or jury verdict and the time of sentencing. Typically, however, a presentence investigation is ordered by the judge in felonies (a kind of biography of the Defendant written by a probation officer that includes a criminal history, work history, and family history, as well as an ostensibly independent recommendation from the Department of Correctional Services). In Iowa, it is unusual to have the same sentencing judge as the merits phase unless the case is specially assigned to a particular judge from start to finish.
Under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.10, if the State and the Defendant and the Judge taking the plea agree, the Defendant may submit a plea of guilty conditioned on the Judge’s approval of the plea agreement and guarantee that the Judge will impose the requested sentence. If the sentencing judge refuses to accept the agreement of the parties under those circumstances, the Defendant may retract their plea of guilty and proceed to trial. I’ve worked these type of cases and they are rare. So the short answer is that the Defendant does not in most cases know the likely outcome of a plea agreement and there are no promises that the judge will follow a particular agreement. Because prosecutors and defense counsel typically understand the boundaries to which they must adhere with regard to appropriate sentencing recommendations, they self-police to prevent hiccups at sentencing.
Still, it must be noted that there is an element of the unknown. Moreover, some agreements allow parties to “argue” at sentencing—meaning that charges are reduced or dismissed but the parties may argue their own recommendations at sentencing. If a defendant or a loved one is interested in understanding this complex process, it may be wise to consult with a competent criminal defense attorney who can explore all available options. A blog is not legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading a blog or sending unsolicited information over the Internet.