A young man who has spent the past five years under state confinement as a sex offender for acts he committed as a youth could soon become just the third person ever discharged from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

At a federal court hearing Tuesday, a top official said the state could petition to release Eric Terhaar, 24, with certain conditions, within months after he is moved to a less-secure facility.

"We are committed to an expedited process for Mr. Terhaar," said Nancy Johnston, executive director of the MSOP.

The decision signals a change in the state's attitude toward juvenile offenders and could set the stage for the release of other younger offenders held at MSOP treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter, attorneys said.

Terhaar, who himself grew up in horrific conditions of abuse, is one of more than 50 men held indefinitely in MSOP who have never been convicted of sex crimes as adults. Their detention among older rapists, child molesters and other adult offenders has been roundly criticized by experts, who argue that juveniles are at a low risk of reoffending and should receive specialized treatment.

"This is a recognition that there needs to be changes," said Dan Gustafson, an attorney for Terhaar and a class of sex offenders suing the state over their indefinite confinement.

On Monday, during the first day of a federal hearing into Terhaar's case, four court-appointed national experts said the program is not providing appropriate treatment for adults like Terhaar. And last year, a task force that reviewed Minnesota's civil commitment process concluded that, "No person should be civilly committed based solely on behavior that occurred while that person was a juvenile."

In accelerating Terhaar's treatment, the state appears to be bowing to legal pressure. A class of sex offenders has challenged the constitutionality of MSOP, arguing that it violates their civil rights by locking them away with inadequate therapy and little possibility for release.

Attorneys for the state have objected to Terhaar's immediate release into the community, citing behavior problems during his custody.

In the past year, Terhaar has committed three physical assaults against fellow clients and committed 47 violations of MSOP rules, attorneys said. Last June, Terhaar punched and slammed a fellow client against a wall, causing serious injuries to his face, attorneys said.

Terhaar, who attended the hearing dressed in torn jeans and a blue T-shirt, scribbled notes and fidgeted in his chair during the testimony.

In a June sexual violence risk assessment report, MSOP staff wrote that Terhaar also had a history of absconding from placements and continued to violate rules.

"His lack of behavioral control denotes a persisting risk of dangerousness to himself and others, which may include sexual dangerousness," the report said.

Like many other juvenile offenders, Terhaar is caught in a paradox. He has been institutionalized for so long, since the age of 10, that his lack of experience outside confinement is now being used as an argument against his immediate and unconditional release. State officials have argued that he still needs to learn basic skills, such as shopping for himself and vocational training, while undergoing treatment for his behavior problems.

Ruling within 30 days

Even so, Terhaar stands to be the first sex offender moved directly from the initial phase of the treatment program at Moose Lake to the final stage, known as Community Preparation Services, which is designed to integrate sex offenders into society. Many clients never complete Phase One, and it can take decades for offenders to complete all three phases of the treatment program.

"I hope that this signals a new way of thinking in how we approach discharges of sex offenders in Minnesota," said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. "The whole problem is that nobody ever gets out."

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said he will rule within 30 days on the confinement of Terhaar and Rhonda Bailey, the only woman confined in MSOP.