THE Scottish public are to be given a say on how offenders are sentenced in our courts. My gut reaction was one of horror, notwithstanding the democratic sentiment that such a consultation suggests. But, being mindful, I let go of my gut reaction and decided that this might be an interesting subject for the readers of the Sunday Herald.

So why my horror? It’s a result of reading hundreds of abusive and aggressive comments on social media. If someone posts on Facebook or Twitter that a crime has been committed, a common response is the single expletive: "Scum!"

This comes as no surprise. The media is constantly full of stories of extreme language and threats on social media, especially to women.

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I think that the view portrayed by William Golding in his classic novel Lord Of The Flies is correct, namely that what we think of as civilisation, and take for granted, is paper-thin, and if torn apart by circumstances, all hell could let loose. We witnessed this in the fall of Yugoslavia and the genocidal murders that followed.

When we see baying crowds shouting abuse and banging aggressively on prison vans which carry major offenders to prison, it is not difficult to imagine these becoming lynch mobs if not for the police.

From a mindfulness perspective we try not to judge such people, only to state the reality that some people’s minds automatically react with great violence and desire for revenge and harm on people accused of serious crimes.

Ironically the lack of restraint that is dominant in some of us is, from a scientific perspective, virtually identical to the mindset of those who commit the crimes in a flash of anger or hatred.

Still looking at the subject from a scientific viewpoint, there is a major debate brewing in the legal profession, particularly in America. The point of contention is free will. For millennia, philosophers have debated whether we have free will. Do we really have control over our decisions and actions? This was a matter of huge importance in Christianity. After all, it claims that God is all-knowing, therefore He knows in advance how we will live our lives. If that’s the case how can anyone claim to say we have free will if it’s all preordained?

That subject is far too big a subject for now but it does lead to important considerations for the Government’s consultation, especially as now we have objective scientific evidence that strongly suggests that our brain decides on a matter before we think we’ve made the decision. Let me put that another way, because it is pivotal to crime and punishment. While we think we’re still internally debating whether to do this or that, our brain has in fact made the decision. We think we make rational choices; we actually have those decisions made for us by the unconscious automatic workings of the mind.

So to the subject at hand. If a man or woman in a particular situation commits a crime then are they really to blame? If the brain decides for us no matter how much we think we’re considering the options are we really responsible for the brain’s final decision?

It’s too early to reach definitive conclusions on these findings but they can help us look at the consultation on sentencing in a new light. For aeons, the point of sentences in courts was twofold; to punish, that is to cause hurt or harm or pain to an offender; and to meet the demand for what we call “justice”. But justice is in the eye of the beholder and often it is a high-falutin euphemism for revenge.

What if we viewed people who commit crimes as victims of their own brains? We’d still need to protect the public from those brains if the evidence suggests the likelihood of future offences. But we’d no longer be looking to punish or inflict revenge. We’d make the whole purpose of sentencing about what are the best ways to help offenders nurture their mind and its moral compass to prevent future offences. Until this was attained, offenders would be kept apart from the public.

So we’d let go of the punishment and justice mentality and replace it with mental development. That is a mindful approach to sentencing.