Hundreds of sex offenders confined in state treatment facilities receive inadequate therapy from under-qualified staff at excessive cost, according to a report released Friday by Legislative Auditor James Nobles.

At the same time, many other offenders present such low risk to the public that they could safely be released to community group homes, saving taxpayers millions of dollars, the report said.

And in what they describe as a public safety paradox, auditors found that some sex offenders are held indefinitely, even though they pose less risk than dangerous felons in state prisons who are being released back to the streets.

The long-awaited report sets the stage for an emotionally charged debate over the 17-year-old Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which takes offenders into treatment under a judge's order after they have completed their prison sentences

The program's population has nearly quadrupled, to more than 575, over the past decade, and Minnesota now confines more sex offenders, per capita, than any other state. Because the program has never released an offender, even after years of treatment, it is impossible to say whether it is effective, and it is considered vulnerable to court challenges, audit manager John Yunker said.

"A major problem with Minnesota's commitment process is that it generally involves a choice between a high-security facility [or] release from prison with no supervision,'' the report stated.

Nobles strongly recommended a legislative task force to study the civil commitment process, including why outstate county attorneys are twice as likely to seek commitments as prosecutors in the Twin Cities or northeastern Minnesota.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said Friday that he will likely offer legislation to do that within two weeks.

"Something's not right. But I understand the pressure on county attorneys," said Cornish, chairman of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee. "All it takes is another horrendous [incident] ... and anybody involved in the release of the offender gets beat up."

Cornish also has introduced a bill to double prison sentences for first-degree sexual misconduct, which will be the focus of a hearing on Tuesday. "We know that steel bars'' are one way to keep offenders off the street, Cornish said.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said a legislative task force examined many of the same issues last year "and we really know enough to act now." But she said a new task force may be required because the Legislature is now in Republican hands, with many new legislators.

Offenders sit idle

Looking behind the razor wire of secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, the auditor's team found a system where hundreds of mostly idle offenders watch television for hours on end and receive insufficient therapy -- at an annual cost of more than $78 million, or about $120,000 per offender. The yearly cost per offender is three times higher than for inmates of state prisons, they said, but on par with similar programs in most other states.

Auditors called on state officials to replace this "all or nothing'' system and develop a plan for low-cost alternatives, while spending more on treatment of the most dangerous offenders.

The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the MSOP, supports most of the auditor's recommendations and is working to increase treatment and improve the competency of its staff, Commissioner Lucinda Jesson wrote at the end of the report.

After interviewing administrators, the auditors concluded that the MSOP holds about 120 offenders -- elderly, disabled or low-functioning -- who could be housed at much lower cost in group homes or halfway houses with adequate security measures.

The program's offender population has soared since 2003, when the gruesome rape-murder of Dru Sjodin by a sex offender who had only served prison time prompted then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty to tighten the procedure for release.

Since then, nearly 440 offenders have been committed to a treatment pipeline that was unprepared and overwhelmed, the auditor found. As a result, the system spent millions of dollars on security, but not enough money to hire qualified staff to provide treatment and therapy.

Since 2008, MSOP administrators have required new clinicians to have master's degrees and be licensed, and have reduced the number of staff vacancies.

Failing to provide adequate therapy could make the state vulnerable to lawsuits by offenders who argue that the MSOP is merely prison by another name, the report said. • 612-673-1745 • 612-673-7253