The convening of a new legislative session wouldn't be complete without more or less far-fetched hopes of greater bipartisan harmony. Yet on one particularly toxic issue, Minnesota's leaders really have begun a calmer, more constructive discussion worth noting and encouraging.

Last week, a daylong conference at William Mitchell College of Law explored the many problems facing the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Hosted by Commissioner Lucinda Jesson of the Department of Human Services (which runs the program), and the law school's dean, Eric Janus, a longtime critic of MSOP, the event was attended by key Republican and DFL legislators, along with scores of criminal-justice, corrections and mental-health officials.

What was striking was the respectful tone of the affair -- the apparent willingness of all to assume that all have good motives, even though the conference's basic message has in the past proved politically poisonous.

That message is that even Minnesota's scariest sex criminals have rights, which the state may be violating, and that we need to consider ways to release at least some of them into less restrictive forms of supervision, if only because the cost of keeping them all locked up forever is unaffordable.

This mess goes back to the mid-1990s, when, following a unanimous vote in the Legislature, Minnesota expanded efforts to maroon what it deems its most dangerous sex offenders in a kind of jail/hospital, even after they've completed prison sentences for their crimes.

It's supposed to be a treatment center, and making it look like a treatment center makes the program expensive -- about triple the cost of prison. Yet no one has ever gotten better and been released from the program.

Nineteen other states have somewhat similar arrangements for dealing with sexual "predators."

But Minnesota is a national leader in the field, with more permanent patients per capita than any other state. Our population of 600-plus committed offenders has about tripled in the last decade; without changes it will continue to soar.

Predatory politics caused Minnesota to lose control of this program.

In 2003, word leaked out that the new administration of then-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty was considering making changes in MSOP practices rather like those being pondered today. DFL leaders denounced the idea as a plan to sacrifice public safety to save a buck.

Those accusations grew many times louder following a sensational rape/murder by an offender who could have been committed to MSOP but wasn't.

In response, Pawlenty's administration and local prosecutors across the state started seeking commitment for many more offenders. All thought of reforming the MSOP program was forgotten.

Until last year. Republicans in the Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's administration deserve credit for managing to restart a re-examination of MSOP -- without, so far, anybody accusing anybody of dark desires to unleash monsters on the community.

Costs are only part of the trouble. Janus began last week's conference by explaining the legal danger that MSOP could be declared unconstitutional, as a form of retroactive punishment masquerading as treatment.

His questioning of a panel of officials involved in selecting offenders for commitment to MSOP confirmed that, despite the best intentions, those decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent, and that some offenders who pose little threat are almost certainly caught in the MSOP net.

The panelists agreed that a key problem with Minnesota's program is the lack of any third alternative, something between either turning dangerous sex offenders loose or permanently locking them up.

Presentations from officials representing sex offender programs in New York, Wisconsin and Texas illustrated what's missing.

Each of those states has a program of intensive supervised release for less-threatening offenders, involving GPS tracking, frequent check-ins and quick reincarceration for violations of rules. Those arrangements are far cheaper and constitutionally more defensible than full commitments.

It may be a measure of Minnesota's malfunction that on this issue the state can take a lesson from Texas on enlightened criminal-justice policy. Even so, the tone of last week's forum suggests change may be possible.

In a final panel discussion, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, among others, cordially discussed the challenges in finding agreement on how to better balance public safety, constitutional rights and the efficient use of limited resources.

Limmer, Cornish and other lawmakers are working on legislation that would centralize the process of committing offenders to MSOP and considering releases, perhaps under the auspices of a special court of retired judges. That could add consistency and reduce political pressures.

They are also contemplating lengthening prison sentences for some sex offenses, which could eliminate some constitutional concerns, if only over time.

Cornish emphasized at the conference that "politics can't be separated" from this debate because "perception is reality" and the public's fear of sexual predators is justified as well as intense. He's right, of course.

But the politics of dealing candidly with this difficult issue don't have to be as paralyzingly dangerous as they've been in the past, and it's good to see policymakers working on that.


D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.