ST. PAUL -- A federal judge is putting pressure on the Minnesota Legislature to change how the state deals with some sex offenders.

Thursday, five days before the Minnesota Legislature is to convene for its 2014 session, Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a ruling that state lawmakers need to take action now.

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His comments came in a ruling in which he refused to dismiss a lawsuit by patients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program that claims they are being held unconstitutionally.

Frank also ordered experts to interview each of the program's nearly 700 patients, in state hospitals in St. Peter and Moose Lake. He said he needs those experts' opinions before he can rule in the case.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws -- within the limits of the Constitution -- that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

He added: “The time for legislative action is now.”

County prosecutors can ask judges to send what they deem as the most serious sex offenders to the state hospitals after they complete prison terms. The patients claim in their lawsuit that that amounts to continued imprisonment without being sentenced, which violates the federal Constitution.

The patients are held in prison-like confinement and only two have been released.

Frank's comments came 24 hours after Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that it was possible that Frank would rule before lawmakers return to session. That would put pressure on legislators to take action to avoid federal takeover of the state program, which could end up being far more expensive than if the state maintains control.

In a Wednesday pre-session meeting with reporters, legislative leaders agreed that any solution to the problem needs to be bipartisan, but they could offer no path for the program to take.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he hopes that a bipartisan group of lawmakers meeting on the subject can find the answer.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, agreed that both parties must be part of the solution, and legislators should not wait for Frank to take over the program.

In Frank's Thursday ruling, he brought up the possibility that patients could be released.

Hann said Minnesota has one of the largest and most expensive sex offender populations in the country.

Senators last year passed a bill to begin a response to the lawsuit, but it never became law.

Legislators have been looking into how to allow sex offenders to receive medical and mental treatment and eventually be able to be released. At the same time, legislators say the public must be protected.

The issue has been a major one in Minnesota since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. Months later her body was found near near Crookston, Minn. A convicted sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The man convicted of the crime, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., had been released from prison, but not committed to the sex offender treatment program.

Even before Sjodin's body was found, Minnesota leaders began efforts to keep sex offenders locked up as long as possible. That meant a huge increase in the number of sex offenders judges sent to the treatment program.

Frank ordered the state to look at less restrict ways to hold sex offender patients. However, protests arose when Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson announced a plan to put some offenders in less restrictive facilities and Gov. Mark Dayton quickly put a stop to the plan late last year.

The judge wrote that he is sending experts to interview patients to help determine the validity of their claims that they are being held for punishment, not treatment. He said that if the prisoners are right, they are being held unconstitutionally.

Experts are needed to talk to patients and staff, and to examine other parts of the program, Frank wrote.

Don Davis, Forum News Service