Attorneys for the State of Minnesota and a group of convicted sex offenders painted starkly different pictures Monday of the way Minnesota treats hardened sex offenders, as arguments opened in a trial that could determine the fate of the state's controversial treatment program.

In a St. Paul courtroom overflowing with spectators, plaintiffs' attorney Dan Gustafson said Minnesota has overstepped its constitutional bounds by confining people indefinitely in prisonlike treatment centers. "The door only swings one way," Gustafson said in arguments. "It's easy to get in and impossible to get out."

A court-appointed expert who reviewed the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) described a "climate of despair" and hopelessness at the state's high-secure treatment centers.

But attorneys for the state painted a far more positive picture, describing facilities staffed with "caring professionals" who work hard to maintain a therapeutic environment for a difficult population of offenders who suffer from a variety of mental disorders.

The program, Deputy Minnesota Attorney General Nathan Brennaman argued, "does some things better than any other sex offender program in the country."

The wildly contrasting depictions set the stage for what is expected to be a long and acrimonious trial over a program that confines rapists, pedophiles and other offenders who have been civilly committed after already completing their prison terms. The MSOP has been described by critics as a "de facto life sentence" because only three offenders have ever been conditionally released in its 20-year history.

The trial is expected to last two to three weeks and will include testimony from sex offenders, experts on sexual disorders and state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, whose agency oversees the program, among others.

The outcome could be far-reaching if U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank, who is hearing the case, rules in favor of the plaintiffs' class of sex offenders and determines that the program is unconstitutional. Such a verdict would force the state to adopt intensely difficult reforms that state lawmakers have long resisted, including expedited release of offenders and the development of more treatment alternatives in the community.

As of Jan. 1, the MSOP housed 709 civilly committed offenders at high-security treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

"This is a hugely monumental trial," said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and author of a book on sex offender commitment laws. "The state has acted in a way that tees up the question for the judge: Does this meet constitutional standards?"

Judge Frank has already indicated his dissatisfaction with the system and his desire for reform. In a ruling early last year, he referred to MSOP as "clearly broken" and "Draconian," and called on state lawmakers to take action.

Much of the constitutional debate centers on whether MSOP provides effective treatment or is just a backdoor way to confine and punish offenders who have already served their prison terms.

The hearings this week will include testimony from four court-appointed experts on sexual behavior who last year wrote a scathing, 108-page review of the program. That group, which included authorities from Florida, New York and Wisconsin, found that large numbers of offenders were "stuck" in treatment and had lost hope because they were not progressing.

'Feeling of despair'

The experts called particular attention to about 60 young offenders held at MSOP who have committed no sexual crimes as adults, but are being held solely based on behavior they engaged in as juveniles. Many of these adolescents were themselves victims of abuse, and have not received adequate care for their trauma while at MSOP, the experts argued.

Numerous studies have found that boys who act out sexually as adolescents are unlikely to reoffend as adults.

Monday's hearing included more than four hours of testimony from one of the court-appointed experts, Deborah McCulloch, the head of Wisconsin's Sexually Violent Persons treatment program.

McCulloch painted a dark portrait of MSOP, saying the program's failure to move offenders through treatment in a timely manner had fostered a sense of futility among both offenders and staff. "It was really quite overwhelming, the negativity of clients," McCulloch said. "There was a feeling of despair."

McCulloch also called attention to the MSOP's unusually restrictive nature in comparison with other states that operate civil commitment programs for offenders. McCulloch noted that Minnesota is unusual in not reviewing the cases of sex offenders, at least annually, to determine if they still meet the legal standards for confinement. She argued that a number of sex offenders at Moose Lake are likely ready for release, and she urged the state to conduct an independent examination of every offender in custody.

Arguing for the state, Brennaman said the MSOP is constitutional and protects offenders' rights, in part because it provides them with the individualized treatment and the right to petition for release through special review boards.

"If individuals have been harmed [by the MSOP]," Brennaman asked, "then who is it and how have they been harmed?"

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres