Minnesota needs to do a better job rehabilitating sex offenders while they're still in prison and using technology to monitor larger numbers of offenders once they're released to the community.

Those were two of many suggestions discussed in St. Paul on Thursday by a task force assigned to recommend reforms to the state's costly and controversial system for civilly committing sex offenders to treatment lockups after prison.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan in August ordered the state to convene the task force to suggest less restrictive alternatives to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in time to be presented to the Legislature in January.

The order came in response to a class-action lawsuit by the program's patients, who claim it's unconstitutional to keep them locked in a program that hasn't fully discharged someone in its entire 18 years.

Nancy Johnston, MSOP's executive director, told the 20-member task force that the program now has 670 "clients," the bulk of whom are in the first of four treatment phases. Experts say that, per-capita, the state has the most civilly committed sex offenders in the nation. Each costs taxpayers $293 a day, compared to about $90 a day for inmates getting sex offender treatment in prison.

Task force members lightly grilled Johnston on why offenders progress so slowly, with the result that only nine of 23 beds are filled in the program's final, least-restrictive phase.

"Some don't follow their treatment plan; some get stuck," Johnston responded. "It's hard work and a difficult population."

The remoteness of the program's main facility in Moose Lake has made it hard to attract and retain psychologists and other treatment professionals, creating a vacancy rate that "hovers at 25 percent for clinical staff," Johnston told the task force.

Members also perceived deficiencies on how the state deals with sex offenders before they're considered for civil commitment.

Bill Donnay, an official with the state Department of Corrections, told members that 80 percent of imprisoned sex offenders are released without receiving treatment.

"There's a dismal rate of treatment in prison, and I'm embarrassed by it," said his boss, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, who sits on the task force.

While more prison-based treatment might reduce civil commitments in the long term, the first set of reform recommendations, due to the Department of Human Services by Dec. 3, needs to focus on less-restrictive alternatives to the MSOP, task force chair Eric Magnuson, retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court, reminded members.

That's a tall order, several members agreed, because many communities will fight neighborhood-based inpatient treatment programs or halfway houses for sex offenders.

Task force member Gerald Kaplan, executive director of Alpha Human Services, which includes a residential program in south Minneapolis, said that every time he and his staff have considered taking a patient as an alternative to their MSOP commitment, officials have subjected his program to "political threats and pressure," including a push by a City Council member to prohibit such programs in the city.

"The biggest issue will be the push-back you get" from trying to put sex offenders in less restrictive options, he said, even though being in a community is essential to their successful reintegration to society.

Doug McGuire, an attorney with the Hennepin County Civil Commitment Defense Project, suggested that Human Services team with the Corrections department on a sophisticated supervised release program so some offenders could be let out but closely monitored, using GPS and other technology.

Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law, warned fellow task force members that if Minnesota fails to make adequate progress toward successfully treating and releasing more offenders, federal courts could take over the state's program, as happened in Washington state.

Coming up with reforms may be easy compared to getting them through the Legislature, said task force member and state Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. But even if the proposals don't pass, she said, they might comprise a common-sense "blueprint" a judge might use in the event of a "federal takeover."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751