A federal judge has found that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program may violate the Constitution, describing it as "clearly broken," "draconian" and in need of immediate reform.

The strongly worded ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank brings new urgency to stalled efforts by state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton to reform the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which has come under fire for confining people indefinitely in prisonlike treatment centers — what critics say is a de-facto life sentence.

Frank called on legislators to take immediate action or face a court-ordered remedy. "The politicians of this great state must now ask themselves if they will act to revise a system that is clearly broken, or stand idly by and do nothing, simply awaiting court intervention," Frank wrote in a 75-page decision issued Thursday.

Frank's ruling sets the stage for what could be a pitched battle between lawmakers who want to develop a different way of treating Minnesota's population of sex offenders, while leaving the system largely intact, and others who believe the state's entire system for treating sex offenders outside of prisons is too expensive and ought to be scrapped in favor of keeping them in prison longer.

The issue could come to a head when the Legislature's 2014 session opens Tuesday.

Dayton convened a high-level meeting of state officials and legislators at his office on Jan. 23 to discuss how to address the situation. Those present included the leaders of both houses of the Legislature, as well as the heads of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Department of Corrections.

"It was all about trying to find some common ground on this issue," said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, who attended. "The governor made it clear that this is an issue that needs resolution."

Rapid growth, high costs

The MSOP holds nearly 700 offenders — more, per capita, than any comparable program in other states. With costs far higher than prison costs, its outlays also have exploded.

But while experts and legislators have called for changes to the MSOP, actual reforms have been difficult to implement. Sex offenders remain a highly stigmatized group, and the specific actions needed to ensure that their civil rights are protected may be too unsavory for public officials to address, warn legal analysts.

"Why would any legislator touch this issue?" asked Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. "Are you that worried about the civil rights of sex offenders? I admit it, I don't have the courage to have a sex offender released in my hometown."

Legislators who had hoped that Frank would give them a detailed outline for reform may have been disappointed with the ruling Thursday.

Even though Frank had harsh words for the MSOP — warning that its "systemic problems will only worsen" in the next few years — he was measured in his recommendations, leaving the details to state officials.

"The time for legislative action is now," Frank wrote. "Whether or not the system is constitutionally infirm, without prompt action on the part of the Legislature and DHS, MSOP's reputation as one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence will continue."

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said lawmakers are preparing legislation that would implement many of the reforms proposed earlier this year by a state task force, including a biennial review of the cases of confined sex offenders. However, she acknowledged that some lawmakers would not even want to broach the issue.

"There will be people who will still want to wash their hands of the problem and let the court decide," she said.

But political inaction heightens the possibility that the federal courts will, at some point, rule that the MSOP is unconstitutional and order the release of hundreds of violent sex offenders.

A recent case in California has shown what can happen when the federal court intervenes. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California's prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

Study alternatives

In the lawsuit before Frank, a class consisting of hundreds of sex offenders has accused the state of violating their constitutional rights by locking them away indefinitely at high-security treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

The constitutional debate pivots on whether the MSOP provides actual treatment, or is designed to merely punish offenders who have already served their prison terms.

To explore this, Frank ordered a team of experts to review the standards of treatment for all civilly committed sex offenders, and how other states provide treatment of "lower-functioning" sex offenders in community settings.

The judge also held out the possibility of the federal court taking stronger action if the Legislature does not make necessary reforms.

"If the evidence confirms plaintiffs' contentions, and MSOP systemically fails to provide patients with appropriate treatment … the Court, like others, will not hesitate to take strong remedial action." He added, "The program's systemic problems will only worsen as hundreds of additional detainees are driven into MSOP over the next few years."

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson issued a statement after the ruling was issued, saying, "The ruling raises questions about the future of Minnesota's civil commitment system for sex offenders, and we urge the full Legislature, on a bipartisan basis, to address this issue in the coming weeks and months."

In 2003, after the abduction and murder of college student Dru Sjodin, the state Department of Corrections began recommending more sex offenders for civil commitment. The number of offenders held in the MSOP has more than tripled since then; only one has been successfully discharged.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308