Time is running out for Minnesota to reform its sex-offender treatment program — or risk having it dismantled by a federal judge, an influential jurist warned legislators Monday.

The court could order radical changes — even the release of nearly 700 offenders now in high-security confinement — if the Legislature lets another session pass without action, according to former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who also chairs a task force drafting recommendations for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Magnuson said a federal judge who is hearing a court challenge to the program could rule that Minnesota's current system of civil commitment of sex offenders is unconstitutional.

The judge, Magnuson warned, would probably move "with a broad sword, not a scalpel."

The MSOP has come under legal fire because almost no one in its 18-year history has ever been discharged. More than a dozen offenders filed a class-action lawsuit in 2011, alleging that treatment is inadequate and inhumane, and their case now sits before U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul.

The MSOP drew renewed attention this fall after a special review board within the Department of Human Services (DHS) recommended the provisional release of a serial rapist, Thomas Duvall, 58, who committed a string of horrific sexual assaults against teenage girls in the 1970s and 1980s.

After that recommendation drew a storm of criticism from some legislators and state Attorney General Lori Swanson, Gov. Mark Dayton ordered DHS to in effect suspend future discharges until the Legislature reviews the program.

The Duvall case has become highly charged politically, with some legislators arguing that it has distracted attention from the need for broad reform.

"It is better for people in Minnesota to see that we can lay down our political scabbards once in a while and focus on the controversial issues at hand," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.

But by freezing releases, while a federal judge insists on reform, Dayton may also have added urgency to the issue.

"It is incumbent on us to step up to the plate now, because we don't have the luxury of a lot of time," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Court hearing Dec. 18

Last year Frank ordered DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson to create a task force to draft less restrictive alternatives for sex offenders, who are confined at high-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. The 15-member task force plans to complete a report to legislators by Dec. 1. The judge, meanwhile, will hear arguments on the MSOP's constitutionality Dec. 18.

"There are serious issues in how the program currently operates, and they can be summarized basically in … too many people get in and nobody gets out," said Magnuson. "That's the core of the constitutional challenge."

Magnuson pointed to California as an example of what can happen if a federal court intervenes. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California's prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The high court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

At Monday's hearing, a number of legislators expressed concern about the costs — and exploding size — of the MSOP.

In 2003, after the kidnapping and murder of Minnesota college student Dru Sjodin, the state Department of Corrections began recommending more sex offenders for civil commitment. The program's population jumped from 199 in June 2003 to 698 today, and Minnesota now confines more sex offenders, per capita, than any other state. If current trends continue, the state will have 1,000 civilly committed sex offenders by 2018, according to DHS.

"It is a topic that can be discussed endlessly. It is very complex and very difficult," Magnuson said. "But at some point in time somebody has got to make a decision."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308