MINNEAPOLIS — John Rydberg showed no mercy on the night in 1975 when he broke into a rural Wisconsin home and raped a young couple as their son slept upstairs — or four years later, when he raped a Minnesota woman at knifepoint in front of her children.

On Friday, he will seek mercy for himself, trying to convince a judicial panel he is a changed man who deserves release after nearly two decades in Minnesota's sex offender treatment program. If he gets the provisional discharge he's seeking, the 68-year-old Rydberg would be released to a Twin Cities halfway house with a GPS ankle bracelet and a long list of conditions to follow. If he behaves, he may become the first person permanently freed from the state's civil commitment program for sex offenders since it started in 1994.

While the stakes are high for Rydberg, they're high for Minnesota, too. The outcome could signal whether anyone committed to the program stands a realistic chance of ever getting out, and state lawmakers who are wrestling with a $5 billion deficit will be watching closely.

The cost of treating growing populations of sex offenders is an issue around 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. He lives in a house on the grounds of the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter — outside the secure perimeter and not locked up. At least one other man's case could come up later this year.

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

As part of his treatment, Rydberg 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, Southwell said.

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

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

Southwell said Rydberg has been given 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.)

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 Minnesota 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.

As of Jan. 1, the 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.

Historically, many legislators have said they're fine with keeping sex offenders locked up, regardless of cost.

Rydberg's hearing, which is expected to take all day Friday and most of next Friday, also highlights a conflict within the Department of Human Services, which runs the program. Program staffers 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 the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, declined to comment on the conflicting positions or address specifics of Rydberg's case, citing patient confidentiality laws.

Benson said political and financial factors do not affect the staff's recommendations, and that it's important the program stays legally sound. He said 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."