The state of Minnesota confines many sex offenders far longer than necessary and may be confining some who pose minimal risk to the public, according to a scathing review that casts new doubts on the program's future.

The findings, included in an exhaustive report released Tuesday, raise new questions about the legality of Minnesota's controversial sex offender program just three months before a lawsuit over its constitutionality is set for trial in federal court in St. Paul.

A team of court-appointed authorities on sexual behavior, including experts from Florida, New York and Wisconsin, conducted what is considered the most comprehensive review yet into the inner workings of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). Their 108-page report paints a bleak picture of a program that creates unnecessary obstacles to treatment, sets unrealistic expectations for patient behavior, and leaves both patients and staff beset with feelings of futility. Only two offenders have been discharged in the program's 20-year history — in what many argue has become a de-facto life sentence.

"Sadly, some elderly clients expressed grave concerns that they would die at MSOP," the experts wrote. "Overall, clients expressed feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, believing that the 'program has no end.' "

The report provides the most in-depth critique yet of the MSOP's treatment model, and could provide legal ammunition to those arguing that the program is unconstitutional. In a case scheduled for trial in February, a group of sex offenders has sued the state as a class, alleging that the program violates their due-process rights by failing to give offenders adequate treatment and a clear path for release.

"This is going to have a significant impact on the case," said Dan Gustafson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "The program has built-in obstacles that make [release] next to impossible."

'Unrealistic expectations'

The panel found large numbers of offenders who are "stuck" and are not progressing in their treatment. Many are held back in treatment, the experts found, because they have intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses that make it difficult for them to communicate with MSOP staff. Others are held back for rule violations, such as running down the hallway or wearing unapproved clothing, that have little bearing on their risk for reoffending, the experts found.

"It appears that treatment progress is currently impeded by unrealistic expectations for client behavior," the experts wrote.

The panel made 44 specific recommendations, many designed to expedite treatment and discharge.

For example, the panel recommended that discharge planning for offenders begin immediately upon admission, and that their cases be re-evaluated at least annually to determine whether they should remain in custody.

The panel also recommended eliminating the practice of giving residents polygraph and penile plethysmography (PPG) tests as part of their treatment. Considered inhumane by some patient advocates, the PPG measures changes in the circumference of an offender's penis as he is shown suggestive pictures.

Juvenile offenses

The report calls particular attention to 62 offenders confined at MSOP despite having no adult criminal convictions. They were committed to state detention based solely on acts they committed as juveniles, yet they are housed in the same buildings as adult serial rapists and child molesters.

A large body of research indicates that the vast majority of boys who commit sex offenses as juveniles do so for reasons particular to juveniles, such as curiosity and attention seeking; most mature out of their deviant behavior as they move into adulthood. The panel cited research showing that just 5 percent of juvenile offenders reoffend as adults; and most adolescents who reoffend do so while they are still juveniles.

In many cases, the authors found, the younger offenders were committed to MSOP simply because they had reached age 19 and could no longer be held in juvenile detention centers.

Once they were labeled "sexual offenders" at an early age, their behavior was viewed through that prism. As a result, even behavior that is common among teenagers, such as touching a female's breasts during a flag football game, was viewed as evidence that the juvenile might commit another sexual offense, the experts found.

"Their sexual conduct was used to substantiate a need for civil commitment [when] officials seemingly did not know what else to do with them," the experts wrote.

Limit to 'most dangerous'

The panel also recommended that Minnesota change its civil commitment law to ensure that the sex offender program is reserved for those who are "truly the most dangerous and are at highest risk to reoffend."

Many of the recommendations echo those of a state task force, appointed by state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, which last year concluded that Minnesota's current system "captures too many people and keeps too many of them too long."

The members of the expert panel included Dr. Naomi Freeman, director of New York's bureau of sex offender evaluation and treatment; Dr. Michael Miner, a psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality; Deborah McCulloch, director of a sex offender treatment center in Wisconsin; and Dr. Robin Wilson, a psychologist, researcher and past president of the Florida Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

The Department of Human Services, which oversees the sex offender program, said in a statement that it is carefully reviewing the report and its recommendations.

Twitter: @chrisserres