Before reconvening after a brief coffee break Thursday, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson joked about the robust debate he'd just had over the quality of the cookies being passed around.

It was a welcome moment of levity in a three-hour discussion carrying tremendous weight. Everybody felt it.

Magnuson serves as chair of the newly appointed Sex Offender Civil Commitment Task Force. The 15-member panel, meeting for the first time Oct. 11, was appointed by Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson to do something many in the state have grown impatient to see:

Rethink and revise our civil commitment and referral process for sex offenders who, in Minnesota, pretty much never get out.

Minnesota has the most sex-offender civil commitments, per capita, in the country, with just over 600 men and at least one woman living in the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program (MSOP) in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Only two have been released.

Jesson was ordered to convene the task force by Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, in light of a class-action lawsuit by patients who claim that keeping them indefinitely in treatment lockup after they've completed their prison sentences is unconstitutional.

Their plea has been far-reaching. In June, a high court in England refused to send an accused pedophile back to Minnesota because he might end up in MSOP. That, the justices said, would be a "flagrant denial" of his human rights. Others call MSOP "Guantanamo."

Until recent years, though, few cared. It's hard to talk about sex offenders without feeling panicked. It's hard to be a lawmaker who seems soft on crime. That's why this panel deserves our attention and support.

Made up of politicians from both parties, as well as judges, public safety officials, and experts in mental health and sexual rehabilitation, the panel is moving forward assertively, thoughtfully and collaboratively.

They agree that change is needed. They're just not sure yet what that change should look like or how they will balance public safety with constitutional rights.

Their first set of recommendations for "less-restrictive" options than a secure treatment facility is due Dec. 3.

"Our goal is to be as transparent as possible," said Magnuson. The panel meets again Nov. 1 and Nov. 15. Retired U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum is vice chair.

"We need to have a solution that can be explained sensibly," Magnuson said, "so that people understand why we're proposing what we're proposing,"

He and others noted during the meeting that it would be unwise to underestimate Minnesotans, who "by and large, are open and thoughtful."

Still, he said, "this is a very emotional issue."

The sex offender program was created in 1994 to treat a small number of the state's worst sex offenders who had completed their prison sentences but were deemed too dangerous to release.

But the 2003 killing of college student Dru Sjodin by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a rapist newly released from prison, prompted a surge of commitments of all types, from rapists to nonviolent molesters. Commitment numbers ballooned from about 15 annually before 2003 to 50 a year.

Each patient costs the state about $120,000, compared to about $30,000 for treatment of sex offenders in state prisons.

But cost is only one factor pushing change. The program designed to be transitional has become permanent.

As Star Tribune colleague Larry Oakes wrote in his 2008 series, "The New Life Sentence," costs are soaring, treatments are sporadic and inefficient, and questions are mounting.

"There has to be a truce," said task force member Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "We have to remove the politics."

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, agrees. "The way we got here is by making adjustments under duress, when a really horrific thing has happened and people, understandably, have feelings of desire for retribution. But that's not a good time to make policy."

A step back, with time to reflect, can lead to better alternatives which will, in fact, keep us safer. Many members were eager to learn about successful rehabilitation programs in other states and ways to reintegrate patients into community halfway houses without facing inevitable cries of not-in-my-backyard. Others noted a need for greater consistency in referrals between counties.

More ideas are certain to arise in coming weeks, but the work is heady and the time is short.

"We've been going toward this for a long time," Lourey said. "I'm very glad to be taking it seriously and having a bipartisan buy-in. We can do this," Lourey said. "We can."

The Task Force meetings are open to the public. For more information, go to 612-673-7350