Minnesota Department of Corrections, Associated Press
In this 1985 photo provided by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, convicted sex offender John Rydberg is shown during his intake into the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. A special three-judge panel opens a hearing Friday, March 4, 2011 to determine whether the 68-year-old really is a changed man, as he claims.

MINNEAPOLIS — Locking up sex offenders beyond their prison sentences seemed like a good idea to many states back when they had the money to get tough on predators.

But as lawmakers across the country struggle to balance state budgets, a Minnesota inmate's request to go free has reopened the debate about the costs and legal wisdom of civil commitment programs for sex offenders.

Now a judicial panel must consider a decision that many find alarming: setting loose a man with a shocking record of sexual assaults going back to 1969.

By the time he was ordered into sex-offender treatment, John Rydberg had a long string of offenses, including the night in 1975 when he broke into a rural Wisconsin home and raped a young couple as their son slept upstairs. Four years later, during his second escape from treatment, he raped a Minnesota woman at knifepoint in front of her children.

Yet Rydberg may become the first person permanently freed from the state's civil commitment program for sex offenders since it started in 1994. A special three-judge panel opens a hearing Friday to determine whether the 68-year-old really is a changed man, as he claims.

State lawmakers will be watching closely as they wrestle with the program's soaring costs and population, as well as ongoing concerns about whether it is constitutional. Most would prefer not to spend the money, but they are loath to free people like Rydberg.

The cost of treating growing populations of sex offenders is an issue all over the country. An Associated Press analysis last year found that the 20 states with civil commitment programs planned to spend nearly $500 million in 2010 to confine and treat 5,200 sex offenders considered too dangerous to release.

The annual costs per offender averaged $96,000 a year — about double what it would cost to send them to an Ivy League university.

Rydberg's case has advanced the farthest out of the seven men in Minnesota who have reached the final stage of treatment before they can seek provisional discharge. If released, he would be placed first in a halfway house under a long list of restrictions but could eventually receive full freedom.

Rydberg is currently living in a house on the grounds of the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, but outside the secure perimeter. His case could show whether it's really possible to go free from the program, or whether commitment is tantamount to a life sentence.

Brian Southwell, Rydberg's attorney, said his client is "very, very sorry" and has earned the staff's first recommendation for provisional discharge.

As part of his treatment, he has admitted to counselors that he committed more than 90 sex offenses, mostly involving voyeurism or exposing himself. About 15 involved actual physical contact with his victims, the lawyer said.

Others will ask the judges to keep Rydberg at St. Peter, including two of his victims, Janet and Tom McCartney, the couple he attacked in 1975.

The McCartneys declined an interview request from The Associated Press this week, but they told the Star Tribune and Minneapolis television station KARE how Rydberg burst into their home with a shotgun and raped them when they were both 23.

Now 58 and living in Edina, they said they were shocked when they learned last month that Rydberg could be on the verge of freedom.

"My belief is that people like this cannot be treated to the point they are safe to live in public," Tom McCartney told the newspaper. "Just look at his record."

Southwell said Rydberg has been afforded significant freedoms over the past several years and has never abused those privileges. He goes to St. Paul once a week with a woman. He walks the treatment center campus with no escort, and he takes occasional trips to Mankato for fishing or other activities.

State and federal courts have ruled that indefinite civil commitments of sex offenders are constitutional if the confinement is meant to provide treatment. But some experts question Minnesota's sincerity in that goal. (The state let only one man out briefly in the mid-1990s, but he was taken back into custody for violating conditions of his release.)

In contrast to Minnesota, neighboring Wisconsin's sex-offender treatment program has discharged more than 60 sex offenders since 1995. California has put nearly 200 offenders back into the community. New Jersey has freed more than 120.

Southwell said the state needs to show some success with treatment to be credible.

"The program wants a successful participant to move on. Finally they have a successful participant," he said.

In Minnesota, offenders must undergo a multi-stage process of therapy and rehabilitation and demonstrate meaningful change. Entering the later stages requires court approval. The last step is a provisional discharge with intense supervision and continuing treatment.

Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the state's lawyers, representing the Department of Human Services, will aggressively oppose his petition for release.

"We think he's dangerous and that public safety would be undermined," he said.

As of Jan. 1, the sex offender program had 605 inmates. It adds about 50 prisoners a year and will cost about $67 million to run this year.

With facilities at St. Peter and Moose Lake approaching capacity, the department has asked for $7 million for an emergency 55-bed expansion at St. Peter. It also hopes to win approval next year for a 400-bed, $57 million expansion at the Moose Lake campus.

That creates a dilemma for lawmakers, who are wrestling with a $5 billion deficit.

Historically, many legislators have said they're fine with keeping sex offenders locked up, regardless of cost. Some have suggested saving money by imposing more austere living conditions on offenders. Few have dared to broach the idea of more releases.

The hearing, which is expected to take all day Friday and most of next Friday, also highlights a conflict within the Department of Human Services: The staff of the sex offender program and the department's Special Review Board have recommended discharge for Rydberg. But agency Commissioner Lucinda Jesson opposes his release and questions whether the treatment worked.

Dennis Benson, director of Minnesota's sex-offender program, declined to comment on the conflicting positions or to address specifics of Rydberg's case, citing patient confidentiality laws.

He said political and financial factors do not affect the staff's recommendations, and that it's critically important the program stays legally sound. The courts decide who goes in — and who gets out.

"The eyes of the court are on this program," Benson said, "as well they should be."