Dr David Webster, Urban Studies senior research fellow, said Job Centre staff assume some claimants are guilty of breaching the rules and impose benefits sanctions.
The former head of housing and planning at Glasgow City Council told the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee the emphasis at the centres had shifted from support to punishment.
He said the lowest sanction available was £286, compared to £200 for a level 1 court fine, and the highest could be £11,000, compared to a maximum court fine of £5000.
He said: "The JSA [Jobseeker's Allowance] scale of fines is higher than the mainstream court fines but with none of the protection the accused has in court like presumption of innocence, right to representation and background reports."
Committee convener, Michael McMahon said: "That analysis is quite chilling."
Dr Webster also claimed quotas, although denied by the Department of Work and Pensions, are being imposed on Job Centre staff, with the threat of disciplinary action if targets are not met.
Dr Webster said: "If an office isn't producing enough it is leaned on and told to get the numbers up.
"A lot of use is made of the more brutal types, who are willing to impose sanctions. They are encouraged to do that to meet the quota."
His analysis was shared by Bill Scott, director of Policy at disabled persons charity Includem, who said Job Centre staff were put under pressure.
He said: "There is a 5% live load sanctions target. Public and Commercial Services union members have been disciplined because they are not imposing enough sanctions.
"Some have been told they won't be getting an annual uplift in pay.
"It puts them at risk of the dole queue with the people they are seeing every day."
MSPs said they were horrified by what they were hearing.
Jamie Hepburn SNP MSP, deputy convener of the committee said: "I am appalled by some of what I have heard"
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: "It's only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able.
"There are no targets for the number of sanctions imposed."