It took four years and tireless advocacy, but Middletown mom Nikki Tierney’s crusade to change New Jersey law came to fruition Tuesday.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that expands the offenses eligible for expungement for drug court graduates. The measure, which passed the state legislature with strong bipartisan support, creates a path to expungement for recovering addicts who had been convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual child endangerment.
Previously, anyone convicted of child endangerment carried it on their record for life, regardless of the circumstances. Now there is some flexibility.
“It’s a huge step for myself and for others who benefit, because we will continue to pay it forward and show society that your belief in us is worth it,” Tierney told the Asbury Park Press. “My gratitude is going to be a verb. I want to be exhibit one of why expungements, second chances, clean slates — whatever we call it — is one of the best investments society can make.”
Tierney’s story was the catalyst.
The bill's backstory
As a teenage basketball star at Mater Dei High School in the 1980s, Tierney was prescribed painkillers for an injury and got hooked. That led her down a path of alcohol and drug dependency, although she managed to earn a law degree and become an attorney.
In 2006, Tierney lost custody of her four children. On Sept. 21, 2007, during a supervised visit at the beach with her youngest — 4-year-old Kole — Tierney was drunk and wandered into the water, where she had to be rescued. She was arrested and charged with third-degree felony child endangerment. Facing seven years in prison, she pleaded guilty, signed disbarment papers and was admitted to drug court — a rigorous rehabilitation system from which she graduated in 2011.
Tierney eventually regained custody of her children, held down multiple jobs and became a model parent and citizen. In December 2020 she earned a master’s degree from Monmouth University in clinical mental health counseling with a concentration in addiction studies. She graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Yet she could not shake the “felon” tag. It prevented her from coaching her kids’ youth basketball teams, co-signing on their college loans and even disqualified one of her daughters from receiving a prestigious law-enforcement internship.
In 2018 a judge denied Tierney’s petition for expungement but expressed sympathy for her situation, advising her to contact her legislator about changing the law.
So she did.
The bill Murphy signed, A-4771/S-2951, had five primary sponsors: Joann Downey, John Armato and Raj Mukherji in the Assembly and Vin Gopal and Troy Singleton in the Senate. All are Democrats. But several Republicans signed on as co-sponsors, including Monmouth County Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger and Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.
As the bill wound its way through the process, it was altered in what Tierney called “a compromise” to ensure passage. The final version requires a drug court graduate seeking a child endangerment expungement to wait 10 years before applying.
Tierney is beyond the 10-year mark, so she can and will apply, but the original idea was for those who completed drug court’s rigorous two-year process to become immediately eligible.
“They wanted to make the law more narrow to ensure nobody dangerous will be slipping through,” Tierney explained, “but nobody dangerous who committed a sex crime or physical abuse can be admitted to drug court in the first place.”
'Just open the door to us'
Despite the change, Tierney sees the law as a key step in the right direction. She cites a University of Michigan study, published in 2020 by the Harvard Law Review, that examined Michigan’s expungement process.
The study concluded: “Long after they have served their sentences, tens of millions of Americans and their families face the serious challenges of life with a criminal conviction record, and this number increases daily. Collectively, these challenges contribute to many significant public policy concerns, making it harder for these families to avoid poverty and contributing to racial disparities in employment and other domains.
"Our empirical results suggest that expungement is a powerful policy lever for redressing these negative consequences, without risk (and possibly with benefits) to public safety," the study continued. "But expungement will only realize its full potential and make a serious dent in these large-scale social problems if we make it available much more broadly and much more easily.”
If it's working in Michigan, Tierney said, it can work in New Jersey, too.
“Hopefully this opens a conversation,” she said. “We can prove the value of expungements and second chances. Just open the door to us.”
Tierney, through resourcefulness and sheer will, already overcame many of her hurdles. She is working as a certified crisis counselor and peer recovery specialist. She runs a charity, “Hope is Never Lost,” that helps local folks who are struggling. She’s a respected member of the community.
The ability to clear her record, at long last, is personal — and it’s not about her.
“This is for my children,” she said. “They were paying the price for what I did. I can finally be their mom. I’m not their felon mom anymore.”