On Jan. 10, the members of the state Senate passed A-4771, clearing another hurdle for the bill to be signed into law; a law that will help to expand access to expungements for people who, according to Middletown resident Nikki Tierney, “have successfully graduated drug court and give hope to those struggling to get a second chance.”
“This bill will limit the draconian collateral consequences for people who have formerly been
involved with the criminal justice system and allow people to experience true freedom,” Tierney, 49, said. “I also think this bill validates that substance use disorder is not a moral failing and cannot simply be controlled by sheer willpower.”
Substance use disorder, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, is a significant mental disorder that impairs a person’s judgment and ability to control their use of substances.
“This bill recognizes this concept and is proof that our leaders believe in redemption, recovery and second chances,” said Tierney.
The bill’s sponsors included Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth). The legislation was previously passed in the Assembly and it passed in the Senate on a 33-1 vote. The bill awaits action by Gov. Phil Murphy.
As a teenager, Tierney was known throughout the Shore Conference as a standout athlete at Mater Dei High School, Middletown, (now Mater Dei Prep) with a tenacity that often intimidated the opposition.
While Tierney is in sustained remission from opioid use disorder, she said she still faces challenges that require the kind of mental toughness she had when it came to athletics.
“As a child, athletics and academics provided a healthy outlet to help me deal with my
mental health disorders. I was never nervous or scared on the field or the court, or while studying.
“Thus, I was very fortunate, because as a result of the time I spent practicing and the passion with which I pursued athletics and academics, I experienced success in both of those endeavors,” she said.
“And then, instead of being in the news for winning championships or being an academic
All-American, my darkest moments, arrest and car crashes wound up in the newspapers. While that was surely embarrassing on a personal level, the stark reality that I was going to die if I did not change was more troubling.
“I had no choice but to turn inward and make changes rather than focus on what others thought of me or the horrible things I had done during that period. I also drew on many of the lessons I learned from playing basketball and soccer to help me recover.
“I knew I had to focus on the task at hand, have tenacity and laser focus. But this time, my opposition was my disease. I pursued recovery just like I had basketball and soccer and studying,” Tierney said.
Tierney has taken up the fight for people who she believes deserve a second chance.
“It was about something much bigger than me. I think there are so many obstacles for people who make mistakes because society has cognitive dissonance about those who may become involved with the criminal justice system.
“Society is under the flawed view that someone’s past defines their future and by excluding people with substance use disorders and mental health issues from society, that the world will somehow be safer,” Tierney said.