State Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper has cleared the way for the first person ever to be fully released without conditions from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

Reversing an earlier position, Piper said Wednesday that she would not appeal a state Supreme Court appeals panel ruling to release a young man, Eric Terhaar, 26, who has been confined at the MSOP for six years based solely on acts he committed as a juvenile.

Piper has "actively opposed" Terhaar's release, she said in a statement. But "given an appellate court decision in an earlier case that disregarded expert testimony and granted the release of another MSOP client, I decided not to appeal this case. To do so could create a precedent that puts at risk the future of this program, which is critical to public safety."

Piper's decision means that, for the first time since the MSOP was established two decades ago, a person will be allowed to leave the program and re-enter society without highly intrusive state supervision. In the past, individuals discharged from the program have been sent to halfway houses or nursing homes, where they were subject to such conditions as round-the-clock surveillance, GPS monitoring and random searches.

Terhaar had become a symbol of a system that critics have derided for putting away too many people for too long. He was committed indefinitely even though he has never been convicted of a sexual offense as an adult, and he was confined in part based on acts he committed when he was as young as 10, court records show.

The decision to release Terhaar also reflects a loosening of attitudes toward offenders by judicial panels and the state, which is under increased pressure by the federal courts to show that it operates a functional treatment program.

"The court is becoming more sensitive to the notion that the system is not working," said Dan Gustafson, the lead attorney representing a class of sex offenders suing the state.

In 2000, at age 10, Terhaar sexually abused two of his developmentally disabled sisters. Also at age 10, Terhaar admitted to abusing his 8-year-old brother. At 14, Terhaar was charged with criminal sexual conduct for sexually touching two female peers in a residential treatment program for children, court records show.

Terhaar continued to have difficulty controlling his behavior even after he was committed to state custody in 2009, the state argued in its objection to his discharge.

A Supreme Court appeals panel ruled in August that Terhaar did not have a sexual disorder, but that his acts stemmed from his traumatic childhood and years of institutionalization. It marked the second time this year that a state appellate court panel granted the release of an MSOP detainee over the state's objections and some expert testimony.

In June of last year, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled that the MSOP violates the U.S. Constitution by confining offenders indefinitely after they complete their prison terms, without regular access to the courts and other legal protections. A federal appeals court in St. Louis has put that decision on hold until it rules on the state's appeal, expected this fall.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308