FIFTEEN years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty as then applied in the United States was unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia). One brief sentence in Thurgood Marshall's opinion, overlooked by many, noted that "when all is said and done, there can be no doubt that it costs more to execute a man than to keep him in prison for life."

Today, there are more than 1,900 men, women and children as young as 16 on death row, and American policy makers, political officials and criminal justice experts are beginning to regret skipping so lightly over Justice Marshall's comment.

In 1982, my office conducted a national survey to determine the cost of capital litigation. We examined the nature of capital cases, identified 11 levels of review and defined a minimum of 144 "cost centers" that determine the total pricetag of capital litigation. Based on proposed but never enacted legislation to reinstate the death penalty in New York, and using conservative estimates, we projected the potential costs of litigating a model New York capital case across just the first three levels of review -- the trial and penalty phase, the appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals, and subsequent review in the United States Supreme Court. The cost of that limited process: $1.8 million per case. The cost of life imprisonment for 40 years: $602,000.

Since then, many more states have looked at the cost of capital punishment, including Maryland, Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Ohio and New Jersey. Some authorities have estimated that capital cases cost 10 times as much as non-capital cases. A Pennsylvania journalist has estimated the cost of a single capital case at $5 to $7 million. There is no longer any doubt that criminal justice systems with a death penalty cost inordinately more to maintain and expand than criminal justice systems without a death penalty.

Before policy can change, however, the American people need to understand why capital cases cost more than non-capital cases, why there is no chance that costs can be reduced, and why we can expect that they will exponentially increase yearly until the death penalty is abolished.

Capital cases are more expensive than non-capital cases essentially for three reasons: they are practically different than non-capital cases; they are legally different; and they are reviewed more thoroughly.

The practical difference. For more than a century, capital cases have been treated differently from non-capital cases. They take longer. Frequently more than one attorney is appointed for a capital defendant. Because life is at stake, trial judges provide more latitude and appeal judges search more carefully for reversible error. (The reversal rate is about 50 percent for death cases and about 7 percent for non-capital cases.) Because the decision to kill is unpleasant,responsibility in capital cases is often diffused -- which makes for longer trials, lengthy delays and frequent reversals.

The legal difference. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court made it clear that heightened standards of due process must be applied to death penalty cases. Consequently, a new jurisprudence -- a "super due process" -- has evolved governing the trial and appeal of such cases. The investigation is more extensive, the number of pretrial proceedings is substantially increased, and jury selection takes longer. After conviction, a separate "penalty phase" is conducted to determine the sentence. Because mandatory death sentences have been ruled unconstitutional, the sentencing jury must consider a defendant's individual characteristics. Preparation for this phase is extensive; in essence, it is a trial for life. The defense commonly tries to talk with as many of the defendant's friends, associates, teachers and co-workers as it can reach, to trace his life history, to visit all of the places he has lived and to vigorously pursue all leads in the search for mitigating evidence.

Longer review. Any defendant convicted in a state court has the right to initiate judicial review at 11 different levels. However, the Supreme Court's ruling that poor people are entitled to appointed counsel applies to only the first two stages; representation in the remaining nine stages essentially depends on volunteer counsel. Ordinarily, lawyers do not volunteer to represent an indigent robber, burglar or non-capital murderer at those stages, but they routinely do so for death-penalty defendants . While these lawyers are not paid, the final stages of a capital case can last a decade or more and generate enormous litigation costs. Police officers and witnesses are brought in. State attorneys general are called upon to respond. Judges must preside. Court time is used up. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, deep in the heart of the nation's death-penalty belt, complains that more than 30 percent of its docket is tied up with death-penalty cases. And all the while, the prisoner is held in a costly high-security death-row cell year after year.

What, then, is the answer? Short-circuit the process and step up the pace of executions? Most Americans recognize that our sophisticated appellate review process, though seemingly laborious, is a fundamental part of our legal system and protects our citizens against government error and abuse. Even with 11 levels of review, we still convict and condemn the innocent. A study in the November 1987 Stanford Law Review cites more than 100 examples of innocent people sentenced to death since 1900 of whom 23 were executed.

Nor is it reasonable to expect a significantly quickened pace of execution. Since 1977, when we reintroduced the idea of slaying citizens to stop crime, there have been more than 200,000 homicides in the United States, about 2,000 death sentences but fewer than 100 executions. Not even death-penalty proponents believe the American people would tolerate the wave of executions needed to empty death row and keep it that way.

Since both the Constitution and a permanent death-row population are likely to be with us for some time, the cost of the death penalty is certain to grow at an ever-greater rate. The numbers of capitally-sentenced defendants will continue to increase. As cases are appealed, new issues decided in favor of death-penalty defendants will affect all cases not yet final. As issues increase in scope and complexity, costs will escalate. And these factors will combine with the high costs of death-row construction and security.

The cost of the death penalty is emerging as one of our most serious public policy questions. In Kansas last year, the newly-elected governor promised Kansans a death penalty while simultaneously calling for budget cuts for each state agency. The high cost of capital litigation, the establishment of a death row, maintenance of death-row prisoners, the high costs and inordinate delays of the appellate process were debated not only by politicians but by university professors, governmental research units and by Kansas citizens. Opponents cited racial discrimination in the conduct of capital punishment, its lack of deterrence, its inability to stop crime, its potential for erroneous convictions, its immorality and -- not least -- its high cost. In the end, massive numbers of citizens declared "no" to the reintroduction of the capital sanction and the death penalty was defeated.

Other Americans will eventually realize, as did the citizens of Kansas, that there is not an endless supply of money for the criminal-justice system. Policy choices need to be made. From a conservative cost-benefit analysis, we must declare the death penalty an inordinate waste of resources that deprives our citizens of adequate police protection and reconciliation systems to make both victims and offenders whole.

As the New Jersey public defender budgets more than $100,000 per capital case and anticipates total defense costs in the millions, as the federal judiciary bemoans the resource drain caused by capital litigation and as California prosecutors declare cases non-capital at the outset to save money, the dollars and cents of the death penalty may in fact be the clarion call that sounds the defeat of this archaic and brutal policy. Jonathan Gradess is executive director of the New York State Defenders Association.