A convicted rapist detained for 22 years has won approval for discharge from Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program, becoming just the third offender approved for conditional release in the program’s 20-year history.

Robert William Jeno, 50, who sexually assaulted two women while he was still a teenager, will be discharged to a group home in Le Center, Minn., where he will live under unusually intense surveillance.

Jeno’s discharge signals an easing of the state’s historically punitive approach to treating sex offenders, and could pave the way for other offenders to be released into the community, criminal justice advocates say.

A three-judge panel approved Jeno for discharge last month after Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who oversees the sex offender program, and the Rice County attorney made it known that they would not oppose his release.

The state’s decision not to oppose Jeno’s release “marks a significant change in policy” at the Department of Human Services, said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and author of a book on sex offender laws. “This demonstrates that the agency is committed to identifying sex offenders who can be placed within the community.”

The discharge of Jeno comes as the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) faces pressure from the federal court to show it is running a viable treatment program and not confining offenders indefinitely. 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.

The sex offender program, which houses about 700 convicted rapists, child molesters and other offenders in secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter, has long posed a political dilemma for the state. Nearly each time an offender petitions for release and reaches the final stage of a long legal process, details of the often-horrific crimes become public and elected officials or special boards intervene to prevent discharge.

Such was the case earlier last year, when State Attorney General Lori Swanson stepped in to oppose the release of Thomas Duvall, 58, who has been convicted three times of sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Duvall admitted to attacking at least 60 women, including a 17-year-old girl he raped while hitting her with a hammer.

Jeno, however, did not have as long or disturbing a record as Duvall. Like many of the offenders at MSOP, he had a troubled childhood and has struggled with mental illness. He was expelled from school during the sixth grade and started hearing voices at age 16. At age 19, he reported that “God spoke to him,” according to court documents.

While at a house party drinking, he forcibly raped a woman. While on probation for that offense, he sexually assaulted another woman and assaulted his sister’s boyfriend with a knife. Jeno committed these crimes before he was 19, at which time he was incarcerated. After serving nearly 11 years in prison, he was committed to the sex offender program in 1992, where he has remained ever since.

His petition for discharge did not go without controversy. In March, Jesson wrote a letter to the judicial panel saying she opposed Jeno’s petition until public safety concerns were addressed by MSOP and the group home. Eight months later, Jesson withdrew her opposition, citing an extensive list of 28 discharge conditions designed to protect the public, according to an October letter from Jesson to the panel.

Among the terms of his conditional release, Jeno must wear a G.P.S. monitor 24 hours a day, submit to random searches of his residence, and continue outpatient sex offender treatment. He also will be prohibited from using the Internet and he will be unable to leave the adult foster care home in Le Center without an escort, among many other conditions.

“In this particular case, the state has proven it can live up to its promise,” said Warren Maas, executive director of Project Pathfinder, which treats sex offenders and helps them make the transition into the community. “They have demonstrated that if [a sex offender] works hard and does the treatment, then the state will place you in the community.”

A community hearing on his release will be held Dec. 16 at the Tri-City United Le Center Middle School in Le Center.