With a pivotal court ruling just a month away, state lawmakers signaled a new readiness Wednesday to make dramatic changes to Minnesota's controversial sex offender treatment program.

During a state Senate hearing, legislators appeared supportive of far-reaching reforms recommended last month by a state-appointed panel of judges and other experts. The proposed reforms include the creation of a centralized state court for the commitment of rapists, pedophiles and other offenders; and treating sex offenders in the prison system rather than confining them indefinitely to costly high-security treatment centers.

"Inaction is not an option," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, during Wednesday's hearing of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee. "There is a consequence to inaction. It may create a [sex offender] program that no one may like if the federal court is the instrument."

Legislators have in previous years been reluctant to tackle the highly charged issue of treating and releasing sexual predators, and lawmakers may see it as politically expedient to skirt the issue in the 2014 session and let a federal judge dictate changes from the bench.

A federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota's Sex Offender Program (MSOP) has escalated the pressure for change. U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank has pledged to rule in the case by Feb. 16, which could force state officials to make immediate changes.

About 700 sex offenders are confined at high-security treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter, and because only one person has ever been discharged in MSOP's 19-year history, the suit alleges the system is a de facto life sentence.

If Frank rules that MSOP is unconstitutional, he could demand that sex offenders be released to less-restrictive settings in the community.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, and other lawmakers are crafting legislation intended to address the constitutional concerns over confining offenders indefinitely.

Wednesday's hearing dwelled for some time on the idea of expanding an existing treatment program for sex offenders in prison. A number of public officials, alarmed by the proposed release of a violent serial rapist, Thomas Duvall, have called for abolishing the civil commitment process and confining sex offenders in prison. Gov. Mark Dayton suspended the release of Duvall, 58, after the governor's opponents lashed out against it.

The hearing included a presentation by state Corrections Commissioner Thomas Roy, who fielded detailed questions about the prison system's treatment of offenders. As of July, there were 3,044 sex offenders in Minnesota correctional facilities, who are serving an average prison sentence of 8.5 years.

A 2009 study by the Corrections Department found that treatment in the state's prison system was highly effective, reducing the reconviction rate for a new sex offense by 27 percent. Participation in prison-based treatment also lowered the risk of rearrest for a violent crime, both sexual and nonsexual, by 18 percent.

The state task force appointed by Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson acknowledged the effectiveness of prison-based treatment, which costs about one-third as much as treating offenders in MSOP. In its final report, issued in December, the panel suggested that "expansion of those treatment programs should be examined carefully, regardless of any changes in sentencing laws for sexual offenses."

In addition to constitutional questions, authorities have raised concerns about MSOP's size and cost, which have exploded over the past decade.

In 2003, after the kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin, the state Department of Corrections began recommending more sex offenders for civil commitment. Minnesota now confines more sex offenders per capita than any other state, and has the lowest rate of release from civil commitment of any state.

The state sex offender task force concluded in December that, "There is broad consensus that the current system of civil commitment of sex offenders in Minnesota captures too many people and keeps many of them too long."

While one or more sex offender bills almost certainly will be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes on Feb. 25, it is unclear whether there will be enough time or political will during a short session to enact reform.

"I hope the public understands that a dodge by the Legislature is really asking the federal court to come in and take an action that is the responsibility of the Legislature," Sheran said. "It's like saying … 'Well the devil made me do it, don't hold me responsible.' "

Twitter: @chrisserres