McLeod County Attorney Michael Junge left his courthouse office the other night, feeling the weight that comes with a prosecutor's job and thinking about a sex offender named Jonathon Wieland.

Wieland, 20, is scheduled for release from the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility in July. Junge could allow him to walk out of prison and into supervised parole. Or, endorsing a Corrections Department recommendation, he could ask a judge to send Wieland to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, where the young man might spend the rest of his life behind barbed wire.

Weighing the two choices, Junge feels he's the one in handcuffs.

"It's an all-or-nothing kind of approach, and it doesn't make much sense,'' Junge said. "He's offended one time, and are we talking about putting him in a program where he may never get out?''

Across Minnesota, prosecutors, judges and mental health experts are struggling with the same dilemma -- and now some key legislators are taking notice.

They say the state's commitment process for sex offenders is deeply flawed because it lacks a middle ground where they could cull low-risk offenders from the most violent psychopaths, housing them and treating them at lower cost to taxpayers.

One result, they say, is that the Minnesota program has become an expensive warehouse for more than 100 offenders -- some as young as 18, one nearly 90 -- who, mental health experts say, don't require high-cost, heavy security confinement. Among their ranks are more than 40 elderly offenders, some in wheelchairs; low-functioning adults considered to be little risk of re-offending; and young men without felony records who were hastily committed to the sex-offender program after completing juvenile sentences.

Court records show that there are at least five men who have no, or few, convictions for criminal sexual conduct; and five others who did not commit a sex crime as adults. Among those 10 are a Rice County man who was convicted of possessing child pornography as a juvenile and ended up at the program's Moose Lake facility when he became an adult. In Olmsted County, a 14-year-old boy was held for committing incest with his sisters; in 1995, he was moved to Moose Lake as an adult simply because he could no longer remain at the juvenile facility in Sauk Center.

"The net has been cast too broadly,'' said Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who has introduced legislation to tighten commitment rules and increase treatment options. "We are capturing people in the program who probably don't need to be captured.''

If the goal of commitment is to get offenders through treatment and place them in secure group-home settings -- much the way dozens of mentally ill and dangerous persons live across the state -- then Minnesota needs new options, say Hann and others. Since 2003, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty issued an executive order that stripped the Human Services Department of the power to grant offenders supervised release, lawmakers have been unwilling to create less costly alternatives to indefinite commitment. Many blame the tortured, emotional politics of the issue, which paralyzes lawmakers who are loath to appear soft on one of society's most heinous crimes.

Huge cost

A recent report by Legislative Auditor James Nobles warned of the huge costs that stem from Minnesota's lack of options. Minnesota has more committed sex offenders, per capita, than any other state and has not released anyone from the facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter since the program was created in 1994.

With more than 650 offenders under commitment, at a cost of $120,000 per person, budget-conscious lawmakers are now confronted with assuring voters they can protect public safety while finding more creative and cheaper ways to evaluate and care for offenders.

Most states wrestle with the same challenge, and some have found practical answers.

In Texas, committed offenders can be placed in four small out-patient, secured residential compounds around the state, at a cost of $27,000 per man. In contrast to Minnesota, Texas commits only the offenders considered to be the most dangerous. They are required to participate in treatment; anyone found in violation of the policies can be sent back to prison for a lengthy term.

Wisconsin has 25 sex offenders living under supervised release, and since 1995 nearly 100 similar offenders have been released under similar terms, authorities said. The state's cost per offender on release is about $75,000. Overall, Wisconsin has more than 300 sex offenders in its secured treatment program.

Hann's bill, cosponsored with Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, would create a five-person sex offender screening panel comprising two retired judges, two attorneys with mental health and commitment expertise, and a psychiatrist or psychologist. In effect, it would start to separate the low-risk from the worst. The panel would determine whether county attorneys like Junge could proceed with a commitment petition.

In addition, the bill would call for building smaller secured group home settings for low-functioning and elderly offenders. Ideally, that would give judges the ability to ensure that those sorts of offenders receive closer, specialized care.

Legislators were spurred to move after Nobles' report described the current program's costly contradictions. The most glaring: "Minnesota is releasing some sex offenders from prison who are probably more dangerous than some of the offenders being committed.''

To underscore their point, Nobles' staff cited the case of an unidentified 88-year-old man who is the state's oldest committed offender.

That man is Wallace William Terwedow, of Hutchinson, a longtime pedophile who is illiterate and has only a third-grade education, according to court records examined by the Star Tribune. Terwedow has since turned 89 and occasionally relies on a wheelchair to move around the Moose Lake facility.

Junge said he had no choice but to petition Terwedow for commitment because psychologists determined him still a risk.

He just wishes he had better alternatives. "Presumably, the people who are committed are the most dangerous of the dangerous,'' Junge said. "When in reality, that's not accurate."

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745