MIDDLETOWN — Nikki Tierney knows she should not have gotten drunk on a beach more than a decade ago while looking after her then-3-year-old son. Amid the Garden State's ongoing drug epidemic, she wants to keep people in her community from making similar mistakes.

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Yet despite a master's degree and a law degree, Tierney cannot become licensed in New Jersey as a certified drug and alcohol counselor because the charge to which she pleaded guilty, third-degree endangering the welfare of a child, is one of a few select "carve-outs" in the state's expungement laws.

She has already been permanently disbarred from practicing law in New Jersey.

Tierney's son is now 17, one of four children Nikki is the sole provider for as a single mother, and she said from an earned income standpoint, they live below the poverty line. She cannot co-sign a lease for her college-aged kids to live off campus.

If she were able to be licensed as a counselor, she said, she would stand to make about 22% more in salary.

The Tierney family would all like to put that one, fateful, long-ago incident permanently in the past.

"We want the day at the beach over," Tierney said. "We don't want to be the family on the beach. My son doesn't want to be the boy on the beach. I don't want to be the woman on the beach."

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Middletown Mayor Tony Perry first became aware of Tierney's odyssey in 2019, shortly after taking office, and has been able to provide her with part-time work at Crossroads, a facility in the township that provides no-cost assistance to help people conquer their drug addictions.

But the mayor knows that Tierney aspires to do more to give back to those who supported her not only after the beach arrest, but in her own recovery from an addiction to prescription medication. Perry and the Township Council have recently passed a resolution calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to grant her clemency so she can be fully licensed.

Perry has been engaged in conversations with the governor's office and with Murphy himself about Tierney's case, but says there has been no update from the state in several months, leaving him surprised and slightly disappointed.

"Nikki Tierney has a lot of life left, and she's got a lot of good to do in this community, and I'm going to be with her every single step of the way," Perry said.

Tierney said it has now been 10 years since she graduated from drug court and duly obtained a certificate of rehabilitation. She said under the state's Rehabilitated Convicted Offenders Act, that certificate is supposed to instruct licensing boards not to consider prior charges that are unrelated to the field in which a particular person is applying.

If someone previously guilty of arson, for instance, wanted to become a firefighter, Tierney said, the law wouldn't allow that. But she believes her situation is different, and she also believes she's not alone.

"I'm not the only one. This isn't about Nikki Tierney. This is about the people who aren't like me and don't have a family that gives me shelter. Because you want to know where they are? They're homeless," she said. "When I speed, I get three points on my license. I don't speed for a year, the three points goes away. You declare bankruptcy, it's on your credit report for 10 years. Ten years and one day, it goes away. Why not my felony?"

The common theme echoed by Tierney and Perry is one of second chances, and the sense that New Jersey could be doing much more to grant them. The Collateral Consequences Resource Center named the Garden State its 2019 "Reintegration Champion" for those coming out of the justice system, but at the same time, awarded New Jersey just a "D" grade for felony relief.

Tierney's lengthy story, at long last, could be gaining steam.

She said Howell this week introduced a resolution concerning expungement much along the lines of what her hometown of Middletown has done, and hopes a task force announced to monitor New Jersey's "clean slate" system will soon spring into action.

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