In accordance with a constitutional amendment approved in 1975 and fully implemented in 1978, judicial power in Kentucky is vested in a unified court of justice. The highest court is the supreme court, consisting of a chief justice and six associate justices. It has appellate jurisdiction and also bears responsibility for the budget and administration of the entire system. Justices are elected from seven supreme court districts for terms of eight years; they elect one of their number to serve for the remaining term as chief justice.
The court of appeals consists of 14 judges, 2 elected from each supreme court district. The court divides itself into panels of at least 3 judges that may sit anywhere in the state. The judges also serve eight-year terms and elect one of their number to serve a four-year term as chief judge.
Circuit courts, with original and appellate jurisdiction, are held in each county. There are 56 judicial circuits. Circuit court judges are elected for terms of eight years. In 1999, there were 108 circuit court judges. In circuits with more than one judge, the judges elect one of their number as chief judge for a two-year term. Under the revised judicial system, district courts, which have limited and original jurisdiction, replaced various local and county courts. There is no mandatory retirement age.
In June 2001 there were 15,400 prisoners in Kentucky, a decrease of 0.3% from the previous year. The state's incarceration rate stood at 369 per 100,000 inhabitants. The Department of Corrections maintains 12 correctional institutions, including a career development center, a forestry camp, and two farm centers. There are also 3 private minimum-custody prisons. In 1980, the department entered into a consent decree to eliminate overcrowding and provide more humane conditions at the state reformatory and penitentiary. Death by electrocution is the only method of execution. The state has executed 105 people since 1930, only two of whom were put to death since 1977. In 2003, 38 prisoners were under sentence of death.
In the past, Kentucky had a reputation for lawlessness. In 1890, more homicides were reported in Kentucky than in any other state except New York; blood feuds among Kentucky families were notorious throughout the country. In recent years, however, crime rates have diminished to a comparatively low level. The total crime rate in 2001 was 2,938.1 crimes per 100,000 population, including a total of 10,448 violent crimes and 109,001 crimes against property in that year.